America's First Christmas

By Miguel Perez

December 24, 2013 9 min read

Now that we have welcomed Santa, some of us are getting ready to receive the three wise men on Jan. 6. In our annual Latino struggle to preserve our own Hispanic holiday traditions, a little history is appropriate here. After all, it was our Spanish ancestors who celebrated North America's first Christmas — 474 years ago!

Many historians still fail to recognize it, and many books and websites simply skip that part of our history. But now there is significant evidence to show that Hernando de Soto, a dozen Catholic priests and some 600 Spanish explorers celebrated North America's first Christmas in 1539, in Anhaica, a Native American village currently known as Tallahassee, the capital of Florida.

They sailed from Cuba a few months earlier, disembarked in the Tampa Bay area and endured a 300-mile trek to northern Florida. But they were only at the beginning of what was to become the first — and most impressive — European overland exploration of North America. From Florida, de Soto and his men went on to explore the territory that later became Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. Their four-year, 4,000-mile hike finally lost its drive when de Soto died of fever at the banks of the Mississippi River, where he was buried in 1542.

But not before celebrating this first American Christmas in Anhaica. It was one of the principal villages of the Apalachee natives, which the Spanish occupied in the fall of 1539 and where they set up their winter encampment until March 1540.

For many years, Florida historians had assumed that the Anhaica Spanish explorers described in their diaries was in the vicinity of Tallahassee's Lake Jackson, where they even erected a sign commemorating de Soto's encampment and the first American Christmas. But the exact location had not been identified, no physical evidence had been found, and archeologists feared de Soto's winter encampment had been lost beneath the concrete and steel of the capital city.

However, in 1987, as bulldozers cleared the earth for a Tallahassee office complex, Florida state archaeologist B. Calvin Jones discovered artifacts from the de Soto expedition. Amazingly, only 26 years ago, he found Anhaica in downtown Tallahassee — only a short distance from the Florida State Capitol!

Jones then led a team excavation that recovered more than 40,000 artifacts, including teeth and jawbone fragments from pigs (first brought to North America by de Soto's expedition) and a Spanish coin minted in about 1517.

Although the four-acre site was slated for construction when the relics were found, the lot was purchased by the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, designated as a "Florida Heritage Landmark" and turned into a small state park. And while most of the artifacts that were found there now are in museums, the park still features a marker and interpretive panel describing these findings.

"The evidence includes links of chain mail armor, copper coins, the iron tip of a crossbow bolt, Spanish olive jar shards and glass trade beads," the sign states. "These finds provided the physical evidence of the 1539-40 winter encampment, the first confirmed de Soto site in North America. From this location, the de Soto expedition traveled northward and westward, making the first European contact with many native societies."

Although no hard evidence exists to prove that de Soto and his men celebrated this first Christmas in Tallahassee, historians say it's hard to imagine the priests who traveled with de Soto not saying mass on the 15th of December. Prior to the institution of the current Gregorian calendar in 1582, Christmas was celebrated on Dec. 15. It's also hard to conceive that they had no special feast on the 12th day after Christmas, when Catholics commemorate the Epiphany: The manifestation of Christ to the gentiles on the day Jesus was visited by the three wise men (Matthew 2:1-12).

Considering the fact that the Spanish camp was under constant attack from Apalachee, who wanted their village back, prominent Florida historians and archaeologists believe that Christmas season celebrations might have been strained and brief. But few doubt that they happened.

In fact, the doubts and negativity about America's first Christmas usually comes from those who say the Spanish were simply too violent; yes, those who judge 16th century explorers by 21st century moral standards. No one denies de Soto and his army raided villages and killed many Native Americans. But they also were subject to constant ambush attacks, suffered hundreds of casualties and endured amazing hardships in their quest to explore North America.

Their critics tell us that Spanish explorers didn't come to build, but only to seek gold and glory. Yet the settlements they established from Florida to California demonstrate the contrary. And surely they were not alone in seeking gold and killing Native Americans. Somehow, other European settlers don't get their adequate share of the blame for the Native American holocaust.

But let's face it: De Soto and his men were going where no European man had gone before — traveling through the wilderness, encountering hostile opposition along the way and fighting the same Apalachee who had nearly wiped out another Spanish expedition, which was led by Panfilo Narvaez 11 years earlier. Of the 300 Spanish soldiers in the 1528 Narvaez expedition, only four survived.

In those days, explorers had to do what the times dictated. Violence and cruelty was the norm, but not just for Spanish explorers.

Those who reject Spanish accomplishments based on the cruelty of the 16th century still are promoting the Black Legend — that centuries old campaign to demonize the Spanish conquistadors and minimize the accomplishments of Hispanics.

Nowadays, there are many websites pretending to tell the history of Christmas in America. Yet like all other historical research influenced by the bias of the Black Legend, many of these sites begin telling our Christmas story in 17th century British America and in complete denial of the Spanish presence in North America, which started in 1513.

They tell you Christmas wasn't always celebrated in this country and that it was actually banned in New England between 1659 and 1681 because the Puritan pilgrims considered it a heathen holiday. They tell you Christmas day again fell out of favor after the American Revolution because it was considered one of many "English customs" the American people wanted to repel.

As if all prior Christmases didn't really count, they tell you the first Christmas — under the Declaration of Independence — was in 1776; the first one under America's new constitution was in 1789; and that Christmas wasn't declared a federal holiday until 1870. Yet the real first American Christmas rarely gets mentioned!

Some sites actually affirm, "Christmas was not a holiday in early America."

But after this first 1539 Christmas in Tallahassee, and before the anti-Christmas pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620, there are records to show the birth of Christ was celebrated by Spanish explorers for decades in North America, starting in 1565 in St. Augustine, Fla., and in 1598 in New Mexico.

What could lead to such distortion of history? Could it be because some people find it difficult to recognize that the first American Christmas celebrations were all in Spanish?

Websites tell you all about the first Christmas tree, the first Christmas card, the first nativity scene and the first Christmas store, but the first American city where Christmas was celebrated, well, that's a little harder to find.

Unfortunately, the Black Legend is alive and well in the 21st century, and Americans' hidden Hispanic heritage still is well-hidden.

And so, to fill the void in cyberspace and set the record straight, when people Google "America's first Christmas" from now on, they'll be reading this column.

Besides, this is my way of wishing you a belated "Feliz Navidad," just the way it was expressed on that first American Christmas.

To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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