There are no headliners booked for the hottest ticket of the holiday season in Sonoma.
It’s just neighbors, children to elders, standing shoulder to shoulder, singing traditional Christmas carols to the collective light of scores of flickering candles dancing on the whitewashed adobe walls of the historic Mission San Francisco de Solano.
By candlelight, within this primitive, strikingly unadorned chapel, on this one night of the year, time is suspended.
Celebrating “Christmas at the Mission” is an enchanting experience because of its simplicity. No flash, no commercial hustle or fussy food, just the camaraderie of community and seasonal cheer followed by cookies and cider across the street at the old Toscano Hotel, which also is open and decorated with a Christmas tree. Twinkling luminarias help light a path between the mission and the hotel, giving the plaza a softly festive glow.
“When you go to that event, it’s like one big happy family,” says Sonoma city historian George McKale. “There are so many familiar faces. You forget what’s going on in the outside world.”
The short, non-denominational service is as simple as the mission chapel itself, a minimalist, Mexican military-style church built by Gen. Mariano Vallejo in 1840 after the original 1823 mission church founded by Father Jose Altimira was destroyed.
As attendees enter the dimly lit chapel, past the mission’s original holy water font on the left, everyone over 12 is presented with a lit candle. As they move forward and the chapel fills, the narrow space slowly illuminates, candle by candle, until the room is radiant with warm firelight. The experience is sweetly moving.
“Without that mission, Sonoma probably wouldn’t be here,” McKale says. “(It) has this special feeling that goes back to the roots of this town. It doesn’t matter what religion you are. It’s magical.”
There is no charge for tickets for the December 14 event, although they are only available for several hours on the Saturday morning before Thanksgiving; this year it is November 23. You must pick up tickets in person at the mission; only 200 are available for each of four services, the first of which begins at 4:30 p.m. and the last at 7:30 p.m.