December 11, 1998

First US Christmas Was Celebrated in Texas

Is Christmas the oldest holiday? Texas was the site of the first Christmas celebration in what now is the United States.

It happened on Christmas Eve, 1500. A Spanish expedition headed by Juan Onate has crossed the Rio Grande and camped near the present location of El Paso, Texas. That night, the ladies and gentlemen of the expedition observed the holiday by reenacting the march of the three wise men to Bethlehem. They drafted some local Indians to add color to the pageantry.

There is no record of another observation of Christmas in North America until 1607 when the English settled Jamestown, Va., and brought their holiday traditions with them.

When the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock eight years later, they were so grateful for their good fortune that they proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving. However, on December 25, 1620 —their first Christmas in the New World— they spent the day chopping wood.

These newcomers interpreted the Bible literally, and found nothing in the Scriptures directing them to observe the birthday of Christ. They devoted the day to hard labor "in order to avoid any frivolity on the day sometimes called Christmas."

In fact, it was more than 200 years after the Pilgrims landed before December 25 became a holiday in Texas and the rest of the country. In 1659, the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made Christmas illegal and levied a five shilling fine against anyone observing it. Until 1856, New England schools conducted classes on December 25.

In 1836, Alabama became the first state to declare Christmas a holiday.

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