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Columbus Day: A Complex Holiday

Columbus Day: A Complex Holiday

Many school-age children learn about the discovery of the Americas with the helpful ditty “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. And it’s true, Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic on his quest to find a shorter route to Asia. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain funded this fantastic voyage of an adventurous and brave Italian. However, the full story is not so neat and clean as that simple historical ditty would suggest.

It’s true that in 1492, Christopher Columbus embarked on a journey to find a westward route to India and Asia. Instead, he ended up on the shores of Cuba, Hispaniola and eventually the mainland of North America. History books commonly credit Christopher Columbus with discovering the New World, and many have celebrated this discovery in some way since 1792.

In fact, many different countries, including Spain and Italy, have their version of Columbus Day to commemorate the momentous event. Spaniards celebrate “Fiesta Nacional,” while Italians observe “Giornata Nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo” and Argentinians recognize “Dia del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural” in Argentina.

The first official observation of the holiday was in 1792 on the 300th anniversary of his landing and the 400th anniversary was widely observed as a day of patriotism and loyalty. Inspired by the efforts of Angelo Noce, the governor of Colorado first proclaimed the holiday in 1905 and made it a statutory holiday in 1907. In the following years, Generoso Pope and the Knights of Columbus lobbied for it to become a national holiday, which was declared by President Franklin Roosevelt in April of 1934. It wasn’t until 1970 that the second Monday in October became Columbus Day, a national holiday coinciding with the anniversary of the United States Navy.

In modern-day America, Columbus Day is observed by retail sales and a day off from work for some government employees. Each state or local community celebrates it in a unique way, and not everyone gets a day off from work. In fact, some states don’t even observe the holiday! Instead of Columbus Day, the state of Hawaii recognizes Discoverers’ Day to celebrate the early Polynesians and the state of Vermont celebrates “Indigenous People’s Day” and the people of South Dakota recognize “Native American Day.”

While it isn’t that surprising that Columbus Day is becoming a day to bring broad awareness to Native American culture, it is surprising that the holiday is also one of the largest celebrations of Italian-American culture. Whether you book a trip to San Francisco to participate in one of the oldest Columbus Day parade or fly off to New York for one of the largest parades, you'll be celebrating the best of Italian heritage this upcoming Columbus Day.

If your budget and schedule don't allow you to go to New York or San Francisco this second Monday in October, you can take a moment to reflect on the incredible diversity and cultures that make our country a melting pot.

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