A rich Christian underlying bedrock is innately sewn into the fabric of America. From the founding documents of the Mayflower Compact through the Declaration of Independence and beyond, a tightknit relationship and belief system between the United States and a superior transcendental order, is keenly reflected. This established relationship has influenced and benefited American democracy by facilitating the forging of a virtuous society, a vital component of any self-government scheme. On this salient note, it is imperative that honor to the truth be done and the rich Hispanic tradition to that Judeo-Christian moral value ethic that so entails the American fiber be remembered. Christmas is the perfect time for this reflection.
The First Christmas Mass
Sixty-eight years before Jamestown, Virginia was founded and more than eight decades ahead of the Mayflower’s landing in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in a place called Anhaica, an abandoned settlement of the Apalachee Indian tribe in what is today Tallahassee, Florida, the first Christmas Eve Mass in North America was celebrated on December 24th, 1539. Hernando de Soto, the legendary Spanish explorer, twelve Catholic priests, over six hundred and twenty men, some of them bringing their families, accompanied by friendly natives, observed mass in strict religiosity of Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
De Soto, commissioned by the Spanish crown to explore “La Florida” (present day Florida) and the uncharted parts of Southeast United States, left Cuba and landed in the Tampa Bay area in May 1539 on nine ships with the previously mentioned entourage. Seven months and more than three hundred miles later after heading northwest through Florida’s wilderness, the Spanish conquistadores arrived and settled for the winter in Anhaica (Tallahassee). The challenges faced, because of the constant warfare by the Apalachees, assured that the Christmas Eve Mass would be one of great thanksgiving.
Pigs constituted part of the Christmas Eve dinner meal, this most emblematic Hispanic choice of feasts for the occasion. Rachel Porter, special programs coordinator for the Florida Department of State, confirmed that during a massive excavation project in the area in 1987, in addition to finding over forty thousand artifacts of the Spanish conquistadores, a Spanish coin minted in 1517, pig bone and jaw fragments were also found. Porter emphasized that, “the Spanish were the first to bring pigs to Florida”, thus lending support to the authenticity of the site and the occasion in present day Tallahassee.
Since the purpose of de Soto’s trip was the exploration of the adjacent territories to Florida, this most ambitious undertaking ended up being the most extensive overland exploration in North America covering in a four-year period, four thousand miles, the territories of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, as well as Florida. Ironically, the first European to discover and cross the mighty Mississippi River, on those banks, died of disease. The great contribution by de Soto in the anthropological and geographical spheres of studies, to further a better understanding of the New World, is seconded only by Spain’s contribution in cementing America’s Christian base.
The Mission San Luís, a settlement established in the habitat of where that first Christmas Eve Mass was celebrated, more than 1,500 Apalachee Indians and Spanish colonists together, for three generations, cohabited peacefully and maintained the Christian traditions long after de Soto left. It should be pointed out that the Mission San Luís, preceded those established in California by over 150 years.
As all across America get ready to celebrate Christmas, it is important to remember the fundamental part Spain and Hispanic culture has played in fostering Christianity, and the honoring of its most important Figure. Thus, it is most fitting to say Feliz Navidad, as well as Merry Christmas.