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Hispanics led first U.S. Christmas celebrations

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.

  • Although the birth of Jesus is recorded in two different stories of the New Testament (Matthew Chapters 1-2 and Luke Chapters 1-2), the separatists pointed out that no date was mentioned and no later celebrations were detailed in the Bible.

  • Puritan New England passed laws forbidding the observance of Christmas in the 17th century, and the holiday wouldn't catch on in the region for another 200 years, with the arrival of German and Irish immigrants.

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.

ne 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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