By Max Schilling
“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” – and that is about all historians can really agree upon when it comes to the character of Christopher Columbus. Though memorialized in modern times with the celebration of Columbus Day in recognition of his exploration of the Americas there is plenty of historical proof that the first exploration of North America happened nearly 500 years before Columbus by Norse explorers who landed in modern day Newfoundland. But while proof exists that Columbus was not the first one here there likewise at least exists plenty of proof that Columbus was the first to celebrate Christmas in the Americas.
It was a Christmas of merry-making – and disaster.
To understand the full story and the confusion over what happened one needs to understand the controversial history of Christopher Columbus. The confusion reigns, even now, because Columbus himself left conflicting records. He wrote one journal of his first voyage that was visible to all his unhappy crew – and he wrote another to record his deepest thoughts, greatest fears and his most confidential observations.
Columbus did not have a lot of believers in his cause of exploration. He sought sponsors to bankroll his expedition because there were no guarantees that he would find the riches of the New World that he sought nor the short passage-ways to the exotic potential trading partners of the Orient. He found the backing he needed from the Spanish crown – but finding a crew to buy into his theory that the world was round was a tough sell. His crew was suspicious from the start and grew more and more unsettled as they sailed more than five weeks after their August 1492 departure.
So when land was finally found and set foot upon on October 12, 1492 it was with great relief on all sides. Columbus still thought he was within short distances of Japan and his crew thought they had survived an impossible journey.
Motivated by gold and the direction to find Christian converts, Columbus explored the islands of the Caribbean giving Christian names to locations he would mark on his maps. Two of his three ships – the Nina and the Pinta – were captained by brothers, who carried some of the same urgency Columbus had, though they seemed to be more motivated by gold than converts. Columbus plodded along slowly, trading and making friends with natives as he went along, all in the name of laying a friendly foundation for future explorations and eventual Spanish settlements.
By early December of 1492 the Captain of the Pinta – Martin Pinzon – grew impatient with the pace and slipped away in search of a rumored stockpile of gold on neighboring islands. Columbus stuck to the north coast of Hispaniola, the modern-day home of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
It was along this coast that Columbus discovered a small village of friendly natives. Thinking he had found Japan – and picturing in his mind the gold-roofed palaces and pagagodas about which Marco Polo and John Mandeville had written in their travelers’ tales – Columbus stopped for an extended visit and received a warm welcome. After spending time working out the language barrier and doing some light trading, Columbus began to work a bit on the conversion process and attempted to teach the natives of Christ. After weeks of becoming so familiar and friendly, they engaged in a three-day celebration of Christmas.
Christmas even then was not so different from Christmas even now. There were those, like Columbus, who took it as a religious observance. And there were others amongst his crew who viewed the days leading up to Christmas as a time to party – and wild they did become. For a few brief couple of days, the natives and the crew of the Santa Maria became very friendly and familiar with each other.
As they met with a tribal chief the celebration moved and extended from one day to two without sleep until on Christmas Eve, finally, everyone stopped to get some rest. Columbus himself was exhausted and left charge of the ship to his first mate. The first mate was exhausted as well and since the sea was calm, the moon was full and the winds were slight, turned the helm over to a ship boy – a gromet they were called – who didn’t even have a watch over the bow to tell him where he was headed. As luck would have it, disaster struck when the ship ran aground.
Columbus was roused from his bed to find the Santa Maria in dire condition.
He had some cargo thrown overboard and even ordered the destruction of the mast in order to lighten her on the water. But it was of no use, the Santa Maria was doomed. With the help of the natives, canoes were sent out to help the boats unload the cargo from the Santa Maria and the effort was made on Christmas morning to salvage what they could on the shore.
Columbus was stuck. The Nina, who remained close by, could not handle the crew from the Santa Maria and though not intending to settle the lands of his discovery already Columbus declared the spot a settlement – after receiving the permission of the native chief – and named it La Navidad, after Christmas Day.
Leaving about a week later Columbus instructed the crew of 40 or so men he left behind to defend their fort – built from the ruins of the Santa Maria – and to spend their time in pursuit of gold. The he returned to Spain as quickly as he could, vowing to return to their rescue as soon as humanly possible.
The fate of La Navidad is not known for sure. In fact, the site of that first settlement has not really been found. When Columbus returned nearly a year later he found the spot abandoned and evidence of what he left there being burnt to the ground. His leaderless crew was nowhere to be found and it was only later learned that they had expanded upon their riotous Christmas reveling by taking a number of the native women to wife, angering the natives who killed them.
Christopher Columbus would go down in history as a controversial figure. Some hail him as a gentle explorer while others accuse him of being a brutal conqueror. While those details remain in dispute no one has reason to doubt the first Christmas spent under his direction in the Americas – and what it meant to the future of Spanish exploration.