The first observance of Christmas in America was most likely a solemn religious ceremony, celebrated quietly, in what is now known as Tallahassee, by Spaniards on guard against Native Americans, angry about the foreigners’ occupation of the area.
According to the Florida Division of Historical Resources (FDHR), from October 1539 through March 1540, the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto and his expedition of more than 600 people occupied the Apalachee capital of Anhaica, located in present-day Tallahassee. De Soto came to conquer and establish a colony in La Florida, which at that time referred to a territory covering most of the southeastern United States.
Evidence of de Soto’s winter encampment was found in 1987 when Division of Historical Resources archaeologist, B. Calvin Jones (now deceased), discovered fragments of Spanish artifacts dating back to the early 16th century at a construction site at what is now 1001 De Soto Park Drive, off East Lafayette Street, in Tallahassee.
Archaeologist/anthropologist Charles Ewen was brought in to work along side Jones. Ewen oversaw the excavation work. Findings confirmed the presence of an early 16th century Apalachee settlement along with de Soto-related artifacts.
What they did not find was any actual document mentioning a first Christmas celebration. However, scientist still believe Christmas mass was observed very near the future site of the Florida Capitol.
State archaeologist Mary Glowacki said in a Tallahassee Magazine interview, “I imagine that they did (celebrate Christmas), 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.”
Ewen wrote in his 1998 book, Hernando de Soto Among the Apalachee: The Archaeology of the First Winter Encampment, “Although not mentioned specifically in any of the narratives surely the priests conducted some sort of Christmas service for the men. It was, after all, the time of the Inquisition, and strict adherence to religious ceremony was observed by all Spaniards.”
Any celebration would have definitely been the first for the New World. According to Ewen, there’s no record of any other Christian expedition, with the appropriate clergy, being in the future United States before the de Soto expedition.
Under the best of circumstances, according to FDHR, in the 1500s, Christmas lacked many of the elaborate celebrations associated with present-day festivities. It was one of several feast days celebrated by Catholics.
But the circumstances of this first “New World” Christmas celebration were far from ideal.
“The first Christmas Mass celebrated in La Florida could not have been a very festive one,” Ewen wrote.
“Because the expedition was under frequent attack by the Apalachee, (de) Soto and his men were likely too busy to participate in many of the holiday celebrations,” according to FDHR. “During Christmas, (de) Soto sent some of his men out on auxiliary expeditions to establish new supply lines for an eventual push inland.”
By the spring, de Soto and his expedition left this encampment and moved north. The Apalachee survived de Soto’s occupation. They moved back into Anhaica after Soto left and were still at the town when the Spanish returned to the area in the 1600s. In 1633 the Apalachee invited Spanish Franciscan friars to the area to establish a mission.