Natural History

America’s First Christmas

For Columbus, the holiday did not bring “glad tidings!”

By Bill Keegan, Betsy Carlson and Michael Pateman

‘Twas the night before Christmas

The Santa Maria sunk off the coast of Haiti on Christmas Eve, 1492.

Christmas Eve, 1492, sailing with a light wind, the Niña and Santa María exit the Mar de Santo Thomás. At 11:00 PM, standing one league off Punta Santa, there was little wind, the sea was “as smooth as water in a bowl,” and the launches sent to the King’s village toward which he was heading had cleared the route. Columbus went to bed. The sailor who was steering the Santa María also went off to sleep and the tiller was left to a ship’s boy. The currents of water carried the ship—“so gently it was barely felt”—onto a sandbank. Awakened by “a sound that from a full league (about three miles) off could be heard,” Columbus ordered the mast cut and the ship lightened, but it was too late. The Santa María was stuck fast and the planking opened up. Later, upon reflection, Columbus claimed that the shipwreck was the will of God. The only mention of Christmas is the name for what was to be the first Spanish settlement, La Navidad (the nativity).

and all through the house (caneye in Taíno) . . .

At the archaeological site identified as La Navidad (En Bas Saline [EBS]) named for the modern Haitian town, there is evidence for house walls constructed of wattle-and-daub (a network of interwoven sticks covered with mud or clay). The Taínos built tall, circular to oval houses with large wooden support posts and walls made of smaller sticks. The Caneyes had high-pitched roofs made of palm thatch, with an opening at the top to allow smoke to escape. The Spanish chronicler Bartolomé de las Casas described these houses as large enough to accommodate 40 to 60 people. Guacanagarí, the village chief (cacique) at la Navidad, gave Columbus two houses for his men, and promised more if needed.

not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

The common house mouse (Mus musculus) was introduced to the Caribbean Islands from Europe, so no mice were stirring in Taíno caneyes. In fact, mice have never been identified in any archaeological deposits. It is possible that they did stowaway on Columbus’ vessels, based on solid evidence that a larger rodent arrived this day. The study of animal bones from La Navidad (EBS) identified the first appearance of Old World black rat (Rattus rattus). This introduced species was so common that its bones were present in two-thirds of the archaeological excavation samples. Our colleague Kathy Deagan (Florida Museum of Natural History) described these as “the first rats to abandon a sinking ship in the Americas.”

A common element of Christmas celebrations in Medieval Europe was sacrificing a wild boar. Pig bones have been recovered at EBS, although they did not find a pig skull with an apple in its mouth. The presence of rat and pig bones at archaeological sites throughout the Americas mark the beginning of the post-Columbian era. Rat bones also were found at site MC-32 on Middle Caicos which shows that Lucayans were living here after Europeans arrived. Lucayan sites were repeatedly abandoned and reoccupied so the bones provide important evidence of the timing of their last occupation. 

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care …

Headdresses worn by Taino cacique were made of bright bird feathers.

Columbus was a man of his times so we need to turn back to the 16th century. Gift giving was a Christmas tradition in Medieval Europe. Although instead of presents for children, royalty expected gifts from their subjects (read “tribute”). And gifts were not always exchanged on Christmas Day. Giving gifts was far more common on New Year’s Day. On December 30, after seating him on a dais of palmwood, Guacanagarí removed the “crown” from his head and placed on Columbus’s. The crown was probably made of brightly colored bird feathers, as is still the practice among Indigenous societies in Amazonia. In return, Columbus presented Guacanagarí with a necklace of fine agates and beautiful stones, a large silver ring, a cape made of fine red cloth, and colored high-laced shoes (and stockings?).

in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there. 

We have reached the limit of the torture we can impose on Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Maybe we could find a way to tie in reindeer if we worked in circumpolar regions, but this is the tropics. Yet in the same way we look to the night sky to catch a glimpse of Santa and his sleigh, on that Christmas Eve the view from Guacanagarí’s village offered a similar vista. Dominating the night sky at its zenith on the celestial equator was the Orion constellation. Among the brightest stars in the night sky—Rigel, Bellatrix, Betelgeuse and Saiph—frame Orion’s belt (known today in Puerto Rico as “Los Tres Reyes Magos,” the three wise men or Magi).

Orion is identified as the one-legged man in Indigenous South American mythology and as the hunter in modern astrology. His transit of the night sky marks the passing of seasons between vernal to autumnal equinoxes. During archaeological research at the MC-6 site on the south coast of Middle Caicos, Dr. Shaun Sullivan demonstrated that stone alignments on the site were aligned to chart the summer solstice and the rising and setting of Orion’s brightest stars. Bill Keegan has asserted that the entire site is an on-the-ground representation of the constellation. All manner of seasonal events (rainy and dry weather, hurricanes, even fishing) could be predicted by reading the night sky. 

Christmas in Medieval Europe was celebrated for 12 days, as reflected even today in song. Christmas lasted from the feast of the Nativity (first noted as December 25 on a Roman calendar from the fourth century) to the Feast of the Epiphany (the coming of the Magi on January 6). So how did Columbus spend the holiday season?

In the days leading up to Christmas, Columbus entered the Mar de Santo Thomás on the eponymous feast day. He was effusive in his praise, claiming first that the bay could hold “all the ships in Christendom” and later all the ships in the world. Known today as the Baie de l’Acul, it is indeed a huge anchorage, albeit spoiled by a maze of shallow reefs and shoals. The inner harbor is six square miles in area and the outer roadstead twice that size. Today, the largest cruise ships in the world stop at the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s watersports facility at Labadee. Columbus could see no villages along the shore, so he sent men to reconnoiter from higher ground. Beyond the harbor was a huge valley, all cultivated, and smoke from the villages, surrounded by very high mountains that “reach to the heavens, most beautiful and full of green trees.” At the mouth of the Baie de l’Acul, Columbus named the sandy islet, seemingly in the middle of the sea, “Amiga” (today called Île à Rat). The Niña’s captain, Vicente Anes, claimed to have seen rhubarb growing on the island so Columbus sent a launch to collect this valuable Chinese medicinal herb (Rheum palmatum) prior to his departure.

We conducted archaeological excavations on Amiga in the mid-1990s and found that it had been a fishing outpost with artifacts spanning hundreds of years, including a Spanish ladrillo (brick) on the surface. Our trips to and from this tiny cay showed us on a daily basis how difficult it was to travel to the east against prevailing winds and currents. Columbus departed at night for good reason.

It has been suggested that the sinking of the Santa María was due to excessive partying by the crew on the eve of Christmas. However, his son Ferdinand claimed that Columbus did not drink alcohol and it is in any event unlikely that the ships carried large quantities of libations. After three months at sea and dealing with incessant visitors to the ships, an exhausted Columbus had let his guard down.

Brass “Hawk’s bells” were one of Columbus’s prized gifts to the Tainos.

When the Santa María ran aground near the village of a powerful cacique (chief), Guacanagarí and his kin, weeping, consoled Columbus. Canoes were provided to salvage the vessel, houses to store the cargo, and they were so efficient that not even one agujeta was lost. Known in English as a “lace-end,” these small brass tips keep the ends of a cord from fraying (like the end of a modern shoelace). They were enormously popular with the Taíno; they are a common artifact in the contact period cemetery at El Chorro de Maíta, Cuba. Hawk’s bells, which were one of the trinkets (along with strings of glass beads) Columbus bestowed as gifts, were also highly prized by the Taínos, who called them chuq chuque.

Columbus ordered the construction of a fortress, tower and moat. He noted that these were not necessary among such a loving and gentle people, but the creation of a garrison would serve as a symbol of Spanish power. Such power was reinforced by displays of weaponry—firing guns and cannons—as well as a mock battle among his men. He chose 39 men to remain at la Navidad, and admonished them to trade for gold and to find the gold mine. They would not survive the year.

The men were left behind because only the Niña remained for the return voyage. Martín Alonso Pinzón, captain of the Pinta, had set off on his own on November 27 in search of an island called Baneque whose beaches reportedly were covered in gold. On December 27, Columbus was informed that the Pinta had been sighted at a harbor to the east. A week was spent on final preparations. They reunited two days later on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. Columbus makes no mention of this holiest of days. He does describe his anger at the mutinous Pinzón with his lame excuses, but also relief that Pinzón could not return to Spain without him to claim the glory. 

Whether or not he was the first to “discover” America, to the best of our knowledge Christopher Columbus was the first Christian to reach the Americas. His historic first Christmas in 1492 set the stage for the transformation of human history.

Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History (University of Florida); Dr. Betsy Carlson is Senior Archaeologist at Southeastern Archaeological Research (SEARCH, Inc.) in Jonesville, FL; and Dr. Michael Pateman is former Director of the Turks & Caicos National Museum and currently Curator/Lab Director of the AEX Maritime Museum on Grand Bahama.

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