Visit Tallahassee
The first Christmas celebrated in the United States was not a festive celebration, but a rather a religious observance.
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updated 12/10/2012 2:15:09 PM ET 2012-12-10T19:15:09

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.

The region is known for its sunny weather, so it definitely was not a white Christmas.

"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.

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Eight months before Christmas, in May 1539, de Soto landed nine ships with more than 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 this day.

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.

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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.

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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 re-enactment of the winter encampment and Christmas mass, music, Spanish plays from the era and military arts, including black powder musket shooting, cannon firing and archery.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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