North America's first Christmas?

They were here. They had the priests. But did Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto really celebrate the first Christmas in North America?

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Painting courtesy Claribel Jett

This depiction of America’s first Christmas was painted in 1975 by local artist Claribel Jett. Based on what was known at that time, she envisioned the event occurring near Lake Jackson.

The idea that Spanish conquistadors celebrated the first Christmas in North America in Tallahassee has been part of the city’s folklore for a quarter of a century. Ever since 1987, when the late Calvin Jones and a team of volunteers discovered artifacts dating to the 16th century near the historic Gov. John W. Martin house, the image of Spanish conquistadors enjoying the first “merry Christmas” in the New World has been a playful subject for reporters and visitor guides.

However, the actual history is cloudy at best. There really isn’t any documentation backing up the legend, according to state archaeologist Mary Glowacki of the B. Calvin Jones Center for Archaeology. All we have is conjecture and supposition.

“I imagine that they did, but there is absolutely no mention of it,” Glowacki said. “We don’t have any historical documentation for it, but we do know there were a number of priests that were part of the expedition, and that they did bring all the required items, vestments and so on to be able to perform mass.”

Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his 600-man army occupied the principal Apalachee village, Anhaica, from October 1539 to March 1540. The natives, dispossessed of their homes and food by the Spaniards, didn’t take kindly to the strangers and ambushed them constantly during this time.

“The first Christmas Mass celebrated in La Florida could not have been a very festive one,” wrote anthropologist Charles R. Ewen in his 1998 book, “Hernando de Soto Among the Apalachee: The Archaeology of the First Winter Encampment,” which was co-authored by noted historian John H. Hann.

On the record, de Soto and his men spent their Christmas (which, according to archaeologists, would have fallen on Dec. 15) basically trying to stay alive. Indeed, Rodrigo Ranjel, de Soto’s personal secretary, recorded that the Apalachee burned the settlement at least twice and killed many of the Spaniards.

“They were essentially under siege the entire time,” Glowacki said.

Even if they hadn’t been busy warding off attackers, 16th century people just didn’t place the same emphasis on Christmas that we do today. The Spaniards would have treated it like any other religious observance.

“We know that many of the Spaniards who were here in the New World, whether they were in Mexico or South America, would go to midnight mass and possibly an early mass in the morning; that was pretty common,” she said. “They also recognized all the saints’ days and Easter, so it was just ... a holy day of obligation. You would go to church, but there really wasn’t anything festive about it.”

There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence to support such a conclusion, Ewen said, because these were Catholics living during the Inquisition.

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