Most Americans probably assume that the country’s first Christmas was celebrated in one of the original English colonies — Jamestown or Plymouth — but some historians believe it actually happened in Tallahassee, Florida.

Though no records exist, experts feel certain that Catholic priests accompanying Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s winter encampment in the Native American village of Anhaica — the site of present-day Tallahassee — in 1539 would have been obliged by the church to celebrate Christmas mass.

Spaniard de Soto was leading an expedition that sailed from Cuba, disembarking in the Tampa Bay area and trekking through North Florida on what would be an epic four-year, 4,000-mile journey that ranged from the Carolinas to the Mississippi River — the first and most impressive overland exploration of the present-day United States.

It is well documented that de Soto and his men spent the period from October 1539 to March 1540 battling with native Apalachee Indians and eventually occupying their village before continuing his exploration of the Southeast.

English colonists who settled in Massachusetts and Virginia were Puritans who for the most part objected to Christmas celebrations as pagan revelry. Such celebrations were, in fact, officially banned in Massachusetts from 1659 to 1681. There is evidence, however, that settlers who arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 did celebrate Christmas from December 25 to the Twelfth Day (January 6) with prayer and festivities.

Back to Tallahassee — artifacts from the de Soto winter encampment of 1539-40 were discovered in 1987 just a short distance from the state capitol building. Excavations turned up more than 40,000 artifacts, including a Spanish coin minted in 1517, links of chain mail armor, olive jar shards and glass trade beads.

The four-acre site where the relics were found was purchased by the Trust for Public Land, designated as a “Florida Heritage Landmark,” and turned into a small state park. Also on the site, at 1001 de Soto Park Drive, is the historic Governor John W. Martin House (also called "Apalachee"), home to Florida’s 24th governor (1924-29). The Martin House is home to the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research, where a display of de Soto expedition artifacts can be viewed.

Plans are underway to further renovate the site by adding an interpretive trail, new exhibits and an event space for annual first Christmas observances.

For more information, go to, or call 800-628-2866.