America's First Christmas Happened in Florida

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The first Christmas celebrated in the United States was the same celebration we'd recognize today, but rather a strictly religious service.

The first Christmas

celebrated on land that is now part of the United States took place near

Tallahassee, Fla., in 1539, according to historians there.

The

region is known for its sunny weather, so it definitely was not a white

Christmas.

"It was not a very festive celebration either," Rachel

Porter, special programs coordinator for the Florida Department of State, told

Discovery News. "There were no Christmas trees or presents. Instead, it was a

religious observance with a Christmas mass."

Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto

established his winter encampment site of 1539-40 near what is now the Historic

Capitol in downtown Tallahassee. He, along with other members of his

expedition, celebrated the first U.S. Christmas.

Porter, who is also an archaeologist that helped to excavate

the Florida site, said a written chronicle from the 16th century sheds

light on what took place there.

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Eight months before Christmas, in May 1539,

de Soto landed nine ships with over 620 men and 220 horses at present-day

Shaw's Point in Bradenton. De Soto named it Espíritu Santo, meaning Holy Spirit. The ships brought priests,

craftsmen, engineers, farmers, and merchants; some were with their families. Some

came from Cuba, but most were from Europe and Africa. Few had traveled before

outside of Spain.

Women from that group probably would have cooked the food

served on Christmas Day. "During the excavations we found pig bones," Porter

said. "The Spanish were the first to bring pigs to Florida."

Though pork was likely on the menu of the first Christmas celebrants in America, such meat was not plentiful, Porter adds, so the meal likely would have

included plenty of local vegetables, fruits and seafood. Turkey might have been

on the menu too.

In addition to pig bones, Porter said archaeologists digging

at the site found "artifacts such as

chain mail, from armor worn by soldiers, cross bow darts, coins and pottery."

Most probably would have been put aside on Christmas Day. Music, however, might

have been enjoyed after the service.

De Soto recruited guides from local Native American tribes

during his U.S. travels. In the Tallahassee region, these came from the

Apalachee tribe. The Apalachees are the original residents of northwestern

Florida, but a war in the early 1700's nearly destroyed their population. Some

fled to Alabama and Louisiana, where the remaining Apalachee people live to

this day.

The Spaniards learned from the Apalachee, who knew how to

live off the land. Basket weaving, for example, allowed them to construct useful

containers out of local plant materials.

The most vivid architectural legacy of the de Soto

settlement is Mission San Luis in Tallahassee. The first permanent buildings

associated with the mission were erected in 1633. As a commemorative sign at

the mission shares, the buildings housed descendants of the Native Americans

whose village Hernando de Soto and his men appropriated.

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For three generations, more than 1,500 Apalachee Indians and

Spanish colonists lived together at Mission San Luis. It preceded missions in

California by more than 150 years.

Mission San Luis includes a reconstructed Franciscan church,

Spanish fort, living quarters, and a five-story Apalachee council house. Porter

said the church was a challenge for the excavating archaeologists.

"The most challenging aspect of the excavation and

reconstruction of the church was avoiding any damage to the cemetery located

beneath the church's floor," she explained. "An estimated 900 mission residents

are buried there."

While the first Christmas likely was celebrated outside, the

mass would have been very similar to those held in the Franciscan chapel.

In 2013, Florida will celebrate this period during the state's

500th anniversary of Spain's arrival. As part of the "Viva Florida

500" commemorative events, on Jan. 5, Mission San Luis will host "First

Christmas in La Florida."

Visitors on that day can celebrate Christmas the way

explorer Hernando de Soto likely did. Activities include a reenactment of the

winter encampment and Christmas mass, music, Spanish plays from the era and

military arts, including black powder musket shooting, cannon firing and

archery.

Photo Credit: Visit Tallahassee

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