California Festivals


Return of the Swallows, Mission San Juan Capistrano

March 19, 2024, 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. (Swallows Day Parade and Mercado Street Fair March 23, 2024)

Mission San Juan Capistrano
26801 Ortega Hwy
San Juan Capistrano, CA

Ringing of the historic bells
Live mariachi music
Community presentations
Special Guest Lecture On Cliff Swallows
Mission Parish School performances
San Juan Elementary performances
History of St. Joseph's Day and Swallows Legend

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO - The miracle of the Swallows of Capistrano takes place each year at the Mission San Juan Capistrano, on March 19th, St. Joseph's Day celebrates the Return of the Swallows with a festival at the mission that includes food vendors, live music and dance on an outdoor courtyard stage, community presentations, experts on swallows, Mission Parish School performances, ringing of the historic bells, and history of St. Joseph's Day and Swallows Legend. Children often don colorful swallow costumes, and local mission docents where their finest frocks resembling attire worn over 100 years ago.

San Juan Capistrano Return of the Swallows is an annual event both for those who celebrate the festival and for the media seeking something newsworthy. Swallows are small birds that build mud nests on the sides of buildings under eaves and other places where they find protection. The Mission San Juan Capistrano is one such place the swallows like for their rites of spring--building nests to lay eggs and hatch them.

Each year scout swallows precede the main flock by a few days and begin the work of building mud nests that cling to the ruins of the old stone church of San Juan Capistrano. The arches of the two story, high vaulted Chapel were left bare and exposed, as the roof collapsed during the earthquake of 1812.

The Chapel, believed to be the largest and most ornate in any of the 21 California missions, now has a more humble destiny--that of housing the birds that St. Francis loved so well.

After the summer spent within the sheltered walls of the Old Mission in San Juan Capistrano, the swallows take flight again, and on the Day of San Juan, October 23, they leave after circling the Mission bidding farewell.

History of St. Joseph's Day and the Swallows Legend

The swallows, according to legend, migrate annually to Goya, Argentina in October, and return to their spring and summer home in San Juan Capistrano each March. The Swallows celebration began centuries ago when Mission padres observed that the birds return roughly coincided with St. Joseph's Day on the church calendar, March 19.

In his book, Capistrano Nights, Father St. John O'Sullivan, Pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano 1910-33, relates how the swallows first came to call the Mission home. One day, while walking through town, Fr. O'Sullivan saw a shopkeeper, broomstick in hand, knocking down the conically shaped mud swallow nests that were under the eaves of his shop. The birds were darting back and forth through the air squealing over the destruction of their homes.

"What in the world are you doing?" Fr. O'Sullivan asked.

"Why, these dirty birds are a nuisance and I am getting rid of them!" the shopkeeper responded.

"But where can they go?"

"I don't know and I don't care," he replied, slashing away with his pole. "But they've no business here, destroying my property"

Fr. O'Sullivan then said, "Come on swallows, I'll give you shelter. Come to the Mission. There's room enough there for all."

The very next morning, the padre discovered the swallows busy building their nests outside the newly restored sacristy of Father Serra's Church. Another favorite spot was the ruins of the Great Stone Church, which was once lined with hundreds of swallows' nests.

Fr. O'Sullivan noticed that the small birds migrated south in the autumn and returned to the Mission in spring on St. Joseph's Day, March 19th. Upon their arrival, the swallows immediately went to work patching up their old nests, building new ones, and disputing possession of others with 'vagrant sparrow families' as they may have taken up illegal quarter there during the swallows' absence.

With a great flutter of wings, the swallows would peck at the soil, fly with a bit of it from the old Mission lagoon to the northeast of the buildings. Using the water they made a paste of the earth in their beaks, amid more fluttering of wings at the pond's edge. They then flew to the eaves of the Mission to deliver their loads of mud plaster for the walls of their inverted houses, and, as O'Sullivan observed, "receive the noisy congratulations of their mates".

One of Fr. O' Sullivan's companions at the Mission, José de Gracia Cruz, known as Acú, told Fr. O'Sullivan many stories and legends of the Mission. Acú, a descendent of the Juaneño band of Mission Indians, was the Mission's bell ringer until his death in 1924, and spent long hours under the Mission's famed pepper tree making various items from leather.

One of Acú's most colorful tales was that of the swallows (or las golondrinas as he called them). Acú believed that the swallows flew over the Atlantic Ocean to Jerusalem each winter. In their beaks they carried little twigs, on which they could rest on water when tired.

Swallows Day Parade & Mercado Street Fair

Saturday, March 23, 2024, 11 a.m.
Route: Begins Ortega Highway at El Camino Real; turns at Del Obispo; turns at Camino Capistrano, ending past La Zanja Street.

The annual Swallows Day Parade is the largest non-motorized parade in the U.S. Surrounding the Mission in downtown San Juan Capistrano,  Swallows Day Parade is part of Fiesta de la Golondrinas celebrating the legend of the return of the swallows each year to Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Events are not guaranteed. It is your responsibility to confirm before going.

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