Yarmouth Vanguard, December 19, 1989
When, where and by whom was celebrated the first Christmas in North America? If we could answer anyone of these three questions, we would have the answer to two others.
In 1969, on Christmas Eve, the Boston Globe, in its evening edition, published an article with my comments, which started with these words: “Continental America’s first Christmas was celebrated on a speck of an island off the rugged coast of Eastport, Maine, in 1604.” This island is in the St. Croix River, which makes the boundary between New Brunswick and Maine, the island itself being in the State of Maine. It is called St. Croix Island. Here, de Monts and Champlain, in their expedition to what was to be known as Acadia, had landed their 79 men around June 26, 1604, for the purpose of establishing a French colony in the Maritime Provinces. There were with the group two Catholic priests and a Protestant minister. It is known that there were church services, usually in the morning, both Catholic and Protestant, and holy songs were sung. We can believe that Christmas morning these services and the songs had a special meaning. It is known also that on “special days” were served Spanish wine and cider, which had been brought to the kitchen to thaw. Christmas was then a special day, just as it is today. The joys of Christmas faded away with the days and weeks that followed, when about half of the crew died of scurvy.
Before that time, Christmas might have been celebrated in 1562 in South Carolina, by the Huguenots or French Calvinists, whom the French Admiral Gaspart de Coligny had sent to settle in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. If really Christmas was celebrated here, where these people spent the winter, it must not have been a merry Christmas, because already great dissensions existed among the colonists, for which the project had to be abandoned.
Still on the Continent, this time in Quebec, Jacques Cartier could have celebrated Christmas in 1535, according to a book written in French under the title “Une Fête de Noël sous Jacques Cartier” (A Christmas Feast under Jacques Cartier). Nothing much can be gathered from this book, as it is rather the product of fantasy.
Still in North America, but not on the Continent, Christopher Columbus, in 1492, after landing in San Salvador October 12, did not leave on his return to Spain until January 4th of the following year. It was after building a fort, which he called “La Navidad” (The Nativity), which can be interpreted as the crib of the Infant Jesus.
Even though Christopher Columbus most probably celebrated Christmas in North America at this early date, most likely he was not the first to do so. It is quite sure that in North America Christmas was first celebrated by the Vikings, in Newfoundland, close to a thousand years ago and close to five hundred years before Columbus.
We know of four expeditions of the Vikings, the first around 985-6, by Biarni; the second around 1000-1, by Leif; the third around 1002-5, by Thorvald, Leif’s brother; and the fourth around 1007-10, by Thornfinn, who had married Gudrid, widow of another brother of Leif. All of them visited three regions, to which were given the following names, from north to south; Markland, Helluland and Vinland. Biarni did not land. Lief visited the three regions, and finally built several houses in Vinland, one of which was much larger then the others, where he spent one winter. His brother spent three winters in these houses. Thornfinn also spent some time in them.
Probably it is to Leif and to his men that have to be attributed the celebration of the first Christmas in North America, more precisely in Newfoundland, about the year 1000. Up to several years ago, it was generaly believed that Markland was Newfoundland; Helluland, Nova Scotia; and Vinland, New England. Since the discovery at L’Anse aux Meadows, the most northern point of Newfoundland, by Helge Ingstad and his wife, of house foundations dating back to the Vikings, which would be the settlement erected in 1000 by Leif, it is now believed that the name Vinland was given to Newfoundland. In fact, it is here, in the 1860’s that were excavated eight sites, which have proven to be, without the shadow of a doubt, of about the year 1000, one of which measured about 66 ft. by 53, comprising five rooms, including a large hall, with a long hearth in the middle. This would have been the large house built by Leif in Vinland, around which he would have built smaller houses. It is here that Leif was to spend the winter.
That he celebrated here, the 25th of December 1000, the feast of Christmas, we have every reason to believe that he did. Born in Greenland, he had been recently converted to the Catholic faith while he was in Norway, the birthplace of his father. On his return to Greenland, he brought with him a Catholic priest, on the express order of the King of Norway. Already, in his family, it was a tradition to celebrate Christmas. In fact, about the time that Leif was celebrating Christmas in Vinland (now Newfoundland), it is said that, as Christmas-time approached, Erik, his father, who had stayed home, grew gloomy, because he realized that he would not be able to greet his guest properly at Christmas. “I fear, he said to his guests, lest when you go elsewhere it may be said that never did you have a worse Yule than with Erik the Red.” It seems that what irked him was that he could not offer Yule-ale to his guests.
Had his son Leif brought with him on his expedition to Newfoundland all the ale available in Greenland? with or without ale, it is hard to conceive that he did not celebrate Christmas one way or another, if not to give homage to his Savior, whose teachings he had just embraced, at least to follow a family tradition, even though he was far away from home. That is why it is probable that Leif and his men were the first to celebrate Christmas in North America, that is close to 1000 years ago, and that, in Newfoundland.
By the same token, we can believe that his brother celebrated Christmas at the same place in 1002, 1003, and 1004. Likewise, Thornfinn with his group must have done the same from 1007 to 1009 inclusive. Moreover, if that is the case, we must add that it was in Newfoundland, more precisely at L’Anse aux Meadows, that the first white child was born in America, namely Snorri Thorfinnsson, son of Gudrid, who with her husband, had settled in Leif’s houses, the child that I mentioned in sketch No.21.