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.
region is known for its sunny weather, so it definitely was not a white
"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.
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
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.
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
Photo Credit: Visit Tallahassee