Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León named the land after arriving there on this important Catholic feast day.
In 1493, Christopher Columbus set sail to return to the New World, and in his crew was Spaniard Juan Ponce de León. They arrived in what is modern-day Puerto Rico in order to make permanent settlements in the Caribbean.
Ponce de León eventually returned to Spain, but ended up joining expeditions that brought him back to the islands of the New World and was awarded a governorship. King Ferdinand encouraged Ponce de León to acquire new lands and so he decided to follow rumors of an island to the north.
Some historians say that the rumors spoke of a magical spring known as the “Fountain of Youth” that would rejuvenate anyone who drank from it. It’s said the aging Ponce de León wanted to seek out this fountain to turn back time and return to his youthful body, though many of these legends were only attached to Ponce de León after his death.
At the very least Ponce de León was motivated to scout out new lands that might have gold or other untapped resources. Whatever his intentions were, Ponce de León set sail in March of 1513 and landed April 2 on the coast of what he thought was another island. The three names of the ships that set sail were the Santiago, the San Cristobal and the Santa Maria de la Consolacion.
Upon arrival Ponce de León named the territory “La Florida” in honor of the Catholic feast they were celebrating, Pascua Florida (literally meaning “Flowery Easter”). According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, this was a reference to Palm Sunday, “[b]ecause every great feast was in some way a remembrance of the resurrection of Christ and was in consequence called Pascha, we find the names Pascha floridum, in French Pâques fleuries, in Spanish Pascua florida.”
Also, at the time flowers were used in Palm Sunday processions either in place of or in addition to palm branches. Palms were not easily acquired during this time period and so in many regions of Europe local vegetation was used in its place. Still to this day Palm Sunday celebrations in Spain are very colorful and full of intricately woven palm branches and flowers and feature a beautiful procession throughout the local village.
It is also believed that Ponce de León named Florida after the lush vegetation and flowers that he witnessed after surveying the site near the coast. According to History.com, “Ponce de León (also) explored … the Florida Keys, and identified the Gulf Stream, the warm ocean current that would help future Spanish ships maneuver their way home from the New World. He then returned to Puerto Rico and made his way to Spain, where he was named military governor of Bimini and Florida and given permission to colonize the region.”
In honor of this discovery, April 2 is known in Florida as “Pascua Florida Day” and is known as the “Florida State Day.” The state statutes indicate, “The Governor may annually issue a proclamation designating April 2 as said State Day and designating the week of March 27 to April 2 as ‘Pascua Florida Week’ and calling upon public schools and citizens of Florida to observe the same as a patriotic occasion.”