Long before dawn's light cracks the wintry sky over the Napa Valley Dec. 12, thousands of people will make their way to St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in downtown Napa.
Inside the church, incense perfumes the air. Musicians play and countless fresh roses surround the image of a Madonna: Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The pews are packed with families and workers. It's standing room only. And the scene will be repeated more than once: St. John's schedules multiple masses every Dec. 12.
These Napa Valley worshipers are taking part in a tradition of reverence that began nearly 500 years ago, in the wake of Mexico's conquest by Spain in 1520.
Do you honor the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe? How do you observe the holiday? Tell us in the comments.
As the legend goes, Juan Diego, a poor Indian convert to Catholicism, was visited in 1531 by a beautiful Aztec princess floating in a cloud. She spoke to him in his native language and instructed him to have the local Franciscan bishop build a chapel.
When the Spanish bishop skeptically asked the Indian for a sign from the lady he claimed to have seen, she performed the miracle of filling Juan Diego's cloak with roses in the middle of December.
The story of Juan Diego, his vision and the unbelieving Spanish bishop — who never acknowledged the miracle — has made Our Lady of Guadalupe a patron saint for Latin Americans, and Dec. 12 remains one of the holiest days of the year for Mexican Catholics.
Many Mexican families living in the United States travel to their home towns to celebrate the feast day, often stretching their visit into the new year.
Others flock to churches like St. John the Baptist for mass in honor of the Lady, who is also called the Virgin of Guadalupe and often pictured with a sky-blue cloak like that of the Virgin Mary in European iconography.
Traditional foods for the day, says Vintage High School Spanish literature teacher Azalea Aguilar, include tamales, posole and champurrado (hot chocolate with masa, it's a drink also called atole).
In honor of the day and the Christmas season, the folks at Rancho Gordo host a free open house Wednesday afternoon from 4 to 5:30 p.m. when you can sample atole and other treats.
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