The first Christmas celebrated in what would become the United States was likely in Tallahassee, according to historians. The Florida House of Representatives is considering officially recognizing the site of America’s first Christmas, a move the Senate took last year.
The first Europeans to spend Christmas in the New World, historians speculate, would likely have been Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and about 600 of his men and servants. De Soto had set up camp in an Apalachee Indian village, just down the street from the current-day state Captiol.
Archeologists who work on the site of de Soto’s encampment said, the first Christmas would have been in 1539, when de Soto was constantly fighting the Native Americans.
Florida’s State Archeologist, Mary Glowacki, said, “There wouldn’t have been an opportunity to celebrate, per se. Perhaps in small groups, the priests would have gone among the members and given their blessings. But there really was no great interest in bringing too much interest to themselves because this would have encouraged the Apalachee to engage in another assault.”
Glowacki’s office is in a house built by early Florida Gov. John Martin, and it sits on the site of de Soto’s winter encampment. The site was discovered almost 30 years ago, she said. Artifacts give clues about what a rough time it was when the Apalachee and Spanish were fighting.
She points to four burnt corn cobs. “There are accounts in the historical records of the Apalachee trying to burn the village down in order to chase the Spanish out, and that’s what helped preserve these. They’re now charred,” she said.
So, although there wasn’t exactly Christmas caroling by the yule log, for some, the distinction of first Christmas in the U.S. is still something to celebrate.
Rep. Halsey Beshears (R-Monticello) is sponsoring a House resolution that would officially designate the de Soto campsite. The Senate passed its own resolution last year.
Some Tallahassee residents are hoping the official state designation could help bring tourism to the area. Bert Pope, a Tallahassee Realtor who’s been pushing to make the de Soto site more visitor-friendly, said, he would love to see a “First Christmas” sign on Interstate 10, drawing in travelers.
And the city has experience with that kind of tourism. Across town from the de Soto site, Rob Blount is executive director at Mission San Luis, a recreated Spanish mission settlement originally built in the 1600’s.
“We had it on January 5. There was a mass performed by Bishop Parks, who is, of course, the head of this diocese, and it was extraordinarily well attended. We had the best attendance that we believe we’ve ever had,” Blount said.
The mission held its First U.S. Christmas celebration as part of Viva Florida 500, the state’s yearlong schedule of tourist-friendly events commemorating the 500th anniversary of explorer Juan Ponce de Leon’s arrival. Historical reenactors cooked pork stew as a nod to de Soto.
“De Soto was the first to bring a herd of pigs with him. It was sort of meals ready to eat on the hoof. Moved itself, if you want to think about it that way,” Blount said.
The mission is a sprawling site, build for tourists. On the other hand, the de Soto site butts up against a residential neighborhood. There’s hardly any parking. The grounds need work.
So, it will take more than a resolution to bring a large-scale First-Christmas celebration to the exact site where it probably happened.