Dec 21, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Hispanics led first U.S. Christmas celebrations

Illustration of Christmas tree sprigs forming the number one

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

While early English colonists in New England declared war on Christmas, Spanish settlers in present-day Florida, Texas and New Mexico celebrated what historians considered to be the first Christmas events in the future United States.

The big picture: Hispanics launched, and kept alive, celebrations honoring the birth of Jesus in the U.S. centuries before the holiday would catch on along the East Coast.

Details: Historians believe Hernando de Soto, a dozen Catholic priests and around 600 Spanish explorers celebrated the first Christmas in the U.S. in 1539.

  • That's when settlers held a Christmas Mass in Anhaica, an Indigenous village now known as Tallahassee, the capital of Florida.
  • Spanish settlers also held the first recorded Christmas in New Mexico in 1598 at a newly built church next to San Juan Pueblo, now called Ohkay Owingeh. There, colonists celebrated a midnight Mass to mark Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) and Navidad (Christmas Day).
  • In 1683, Spanish explorer Juan Domínguez de Mendoza and Catholic priest Nicolás López held the first Christmas with Indigenous people in Texas in a small town known as Presidio.

Meanwhile: Puritans and other radical Christian separatists who settled in New England balked at any Christmas celebration, seeing the holidays associated with Catholics and the Church of England.

The intrigue: Christmas celebrations in the present-day American Southwest would continue while developing traditions like decorations called farolitos (or luminarias).

  • Mexican Americans for decades would attend Christmas Mass with mariachis and a reading from Matthew 2:13, where the Holy Family becomes refugees and flees to Egypt after King Herod orders the death of Baby Jesus. Attendees would identify with the immigrant tale.
  • Other Mexican Americans would hear a reading from Luke 2:7, where Jesus is born in a manger because there was no place for the poor Holy Family in the inn.

Don't forget: Some Indigenous people fought against forced Christian conversions and Christmas celebrations by the Spanish. Others incorporated Christmas into their traditional beliefs.

One fun fact: The town of Belen, N.M., was founded in 1740 as Nuestra Señora de Belén (Our Lady of Bethlehem).

  • The town has erected permanent Nativity scene artwork on public property and the area's Democrats and Republicans have resisted any calls to remove it.
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