If the Grinch were alive in the sixteenth century he would have been one happy little green man. Christmas in America began with no presents, no festive dinner and not even a Christmas tree. And it started right here in Florida.
Historians suspect that the very first Christmas celebration took place in 1539 in what is now Tallahassee. Far from spreading holiday cheer, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his army of 600 took control of the Apalachee village of Anhaica and made it their winter encampment. With a population of approximately 30,000, Anhaica had about as many residents then as Clermont does today. De Soto and his men were not known for their kind treatment of Florida’s native peoples. The only gifts that were exchanged that first Christmas were likely smallpox and syphilis.
De Soto did not travel lightly. Between four and six priests accompanied him on his journey to Florida. Based upon artifacts discovered at the site of de Soto’s 1539-1540 winter encampment, it is possible that the first Christmas celebration in what is now the United States was held near an area that will soon be home to a new Chuy’s restaurant, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
Florida’s Christmas Day milestones also include a U.S. victory over the Seminole Indians near Lake Okeechobee in 1837, during the Second Seminole War. The general in charge of the army forces that defeated the Seminoles, Zachary Taylor, became the nation’s twelfth president a dozen years later. He died after just 17 months in office.
President Taylor’s body was exhumed in 1991 after a retired University of Florida humanities professor, Clara Rising convinced his great-great-great grandson to allow tests to be conducted to determine whether the president was poisoned. Tests done on samples from President Taylor’s leathered skin, body hair and skeleton indicated that he died of natural causes, even though the symptoms and rapidity of his death were consistent with arsenic poisoning.
The Seminoles fared little better than the president. By the end of the Third Seminole War in 1858 there were only about 200 Seminoles left in Florida. They evaded relocation to Oklahoma by retreating to the Everglades, where U.S. soldiers were unable to capture them. In recent times members of the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes have gathered for Christmas feasts in the Everglades, a sight that would have pleased the Spanish priests who accompanied de Soto to Florida nearly five centuries earlier.
Fast forward to the year 1951. After celebrating both Christmas and their 25th wedding anniversary, N.A.A.C.P. leader Harry T. Moore and his wife, Harriette went to bed together for the last time. Shortly after they fell asleep a bomb that had been placed directly under their bed exploded. Harry died on the way to the hospital; his wife died nine days later. Although one Ku Klux Klan member committed suicide after being interviewed by the F.B.I., the case remains unsolved.
The Moores’ home in tiny Mims, Florida is on the Florida Black Heritage Trail. In 2013 Governor Rick Scott selected Harry and Harriette Moore for inclusion in the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame to honor their work to promote African American voter registration and equal pay and their efforts to end all-white primaries and lynching.
A little more than a decade later, on Christmas Eve 1962, 1,113 Americans imprisoned in Cuba received a true Christmas miracle: their freedom. Imprisoned for 20 months after the C.I.A.’s botched Bay of Pigs invasion, the detainees arrived by airplane in Miami. In a deal brokered by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the Castro regime received $53 million worth of baby food and medicine in exchange for the prisoners. Just two months before the Bay of Pigs prisoners’ release children watched in amazement as a convoy made its way down the streets of Gainesville en route to Key West, where troops were deployed in anticipation of a potential nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
From the first Christmas in Florida in 1539 to General George Washington’s Delaware crossing on Christmas night in 1776, Christmas is steeped in history. So sayeth the Ghost of Christmas Past.