Christmas Eve Lights up Tumacácori National Historical Park
Editor's note: The year-end holidays are a festive time across many units of the National Park System. Come Christmas Eve, the Tumacácori National Historical Park in Arizona will glow festive with many paper lanterns set in the walls and recesses of the church there. Guest writer Ann Torrence, in an adaptation from an essay in her new book, U.S. Highway 89: the Scenic Route to Seven Western National Parks, traces the history the park preserves and explains some of the festivities it marks throughout the year.
Untold generations of Pima (Akimel O’odham) and Papago (Tohono O’odham) Indians traveled the Santa Cruz River corridor long before Father Eusebio Kino first ventured beyond the northern Sonoran settlements of New Spain in 1691. Pimería Alta's ragged frontier marked the practical limits of new Spain in the vast territory between Santa Fe and the California coast. In a region lacking vast mineral wealth, the enormous task of introducing Spanish and Catholic authority was relegated to Jesuit missionaries.
Kino, an astronomer, cartographer and mathematician, had hoped the Jesuit order would send him to China. Instead, the Italian-born priest was dispatched to Sonora, from where he made more than 40 expeditions, disproving along the way the belief that Baja California was an island. He learned cattle ranching at his first missionary assignment in old Mexico, and drove in Arizona’s first herds from the missions of upper Sonora.
Kino’s earliest journey into modern-day Arizona reached only to Tumacácori, where he proselytized in 1691. The Santa Cruz River, up to its confluence with the Gila River, became something of a highway for Kino as he probed westward for an overland route to California. In his wake, Kino and other Jesuit priests installed more than 20 missions in southern Arizona to convert the tribal people into Christians and taxpaying Spanish citizens. Through the mission network, the fathers evangelized and introduced old world crops, fruit trees and livestock to the Alta Piméria. Vulnerable to hostile attacks, particularly from mounted Apaches, missionary outposts were consolidated at places like Tumacácori, Guevavi, and the isolated San Xavier del Bac.
By the end of his life in 1711, Kino had survived three desert crossings via the “route of the Devil,” discovered the ruins of Casa Grande (now a national monument), and established a chain of mission outposts reaching 60 miles to Tucson.
In 1751 the Pima and O’odham people staged a revolt and drove out the Jesuit missionaries; a year later the Spanish returned, establishing a fort or presidio at Tubac. (The great explorer Juan Bautista de Anza launched his expedition to find an overland route through New Spain to California from Tubac in 1774, now commemorated in the Juan Bautista De Anza National Historic Trail). In 1767, papal and European secular power struggles spilled into the colonies, as King Charles of Spain expelled the independent Jesuits from his dominion. The Franciscan order, under secular control of the crown, took over the Sonoran frontier missions.
Franciscan missionaries resided at Tumacácori until they themselves were targeted as Spanish loyalists in 1828, in the political aftermath of the declaration and war for Mexican independence from Spain. Tumacácori never ha another resident priest, and by 1848 the remaining
Tumacácori never had another resident missionary. The Franciscan order tried to keep the missions operating by sending visiting priests, but the missions of Guevavi, Sonoitac, and Calabazas were closed one by one. By 1848, Tumacácori had also been abandoned.
Ten acres of the mission site at Tumacácori was protected as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908; a Congressional act in 1990 renamed the NPS unit as the Tumacácori National Historical Park and incorporated the Guevavi and Calabazas sites into the park. With an addition in 2002, the park now encompasses 360 acres.
The Tumacácori mission itself is the best-preserved of the three ruins protected by the Tumacácori National Historic Park, and the only one accessible to the public. The National Park Service unit is one of its quietest in Arizona, with annual visitation of 50,000 comparable to a summer weekend at Grand Canyon National Park.
While primarily maintained as an archeological site, the park comes alive during a few special annual events. Each October, area residents fill the plaza to celebrate a mariachi mass for the feast of St. Francis Xavier, Father Kino’s patron saint. The service begins with an elaborate procession of Yaqui and Tohono O’odham tribal members, who welcome uniformed park rangers and re-enactors wearing colonial-era costumes.
The park hosts La Fiesta de Tumacácori on the first December weekend each year, a cultural celebration of the diverse cultures in the Santa Cruz Valley, with crafts, foods and live entertainment. An outdoor mariachi mass takes place the Sunday of the fiesta.
Local area participants also sustain a uniquely southwestern Christmas Eve tradition at Tumacácori. At sunset, volunteers light thousands of paper lanterns set on the walls and recesses of the church, while a park ranger in a Santa cap plays carols on his guitar for the waiting crowd. The gates open as the sky dims to a lapis blue, and more luminaria guide visitors into the candle-lit church.
Except during these special events, the visitor will likely experience a tranquil self-guided tour through the ruins of the church and adjacent secular structures, gaining a picture of life at the mission, from its orchards and granaries to a lime kiln. Occasional guided tours to the Guevavi and Calabazas site are offered by through the park visitor center during the winter high-season. Cultural demonstrations and guided hikes to the Santa Cruz River also take place during winter weekends. Reservations for some guided tours must be made in advance. The park is open year-round except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.