Florida’s special Christmas connection

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(Video: Fox News)

The state of Florida has a special connection to the first Noel, for it was Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto’s expedition through that territory that led to the celebration of the first Christmas in America.

Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee joined Fox News’ “Fox and Friends First” on Friday morning to relate the story.

De Soto, along with over 620 men on nine ships, sailed from Cuba (originating in Spain) and landed at what is now Tampa Bay in 1539. They trekked up through the territory and eventually made camp in preparation for winter in October of that year at the Apalachee town of Anhaica, the site of which is now the capital city of Tallahassee.

Along with merchants, craftsmen, engineers, and farmers, the expedition also included 12 Catholic priests, who would ensure that Mass and religious traditions and celebrations were carried out as normal throughout their journeys.

It was, of course, quite different than modern-day Christmas celebrations as it would not have involved the commercialism and present-swapping that is now a fixture of the holiday. But it is believed that it would certainly have involved the fellowship of Mass, the singing of carols and other religious hymns, as well as the enjoyment of a Christmas feast.

But the leisure normally associated with the Christmas season would not have been a luxury they could afford.

“At the time, Christmas was a more solemn affair, and it lacked many of the celebrations associated with present-day celebrations,” Florida’s Division of Historical Resources wrote. “However, because the expedition was under frequent attack by the Apalachee, Soto and his men were likely too busy to participate in many holiday celebrations.”

Over much time, however, the Spanish explorers (along with many families from Cuba and other parts of Europe and Africa) co-existed with the indigenous people of the territory, the latter incorporating Spanish friars into their tribal element and building Mission San Luis in Tallahassee, which became the capital of Spanish Florida from 1656 to 1704.

De Soto and his men eventually journeyed through Georgia, the Carolinas, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee, constantly in search of gold but only becoming widely known for previously conquering Peru and leading the first group of Europeans across the Mississippi River in 1541. After his death, de Soto’s men tried to navigate southerly through Texas, but turned back due to dwindling supplies and eventually opted to sail the Mississippi River in order to make their way to the Gulf of Mexico, a journey that took six weeks.

The camp at the Apalachee town of Anhaica is said to be one of the few places where archeological evidence of de Soto’s expedition was found. Today, visitors in Tallahassee can see historically accurate homes and other structures where the settlers would have lived and worked, complete with reenactments from Mission San Luis museum staff and a commemoration of the first Christmas in America.

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