Why Columbus Day? How A Wrong Turn Became A National Holiday…

For all you non-Americans, this week we had a holiday in the US.  It’s called Columbus Day.   President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Columbus Day a national holiday, meaning government offices and banks are closed (although many companies don’t shut down).   It was an opportunity to reflect on the efforts that resulted in the creation of our nation, plus it gave the labor movement an extra holiday.

Officially, Columbus Day commemorates the  Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492 (although he thought he’d landed in India).  Almost every American school child knows the rhyme: “in fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  He did sail the ocean blue, or blueish, but when he landed on San Salvador (in what is now The Bahamas).  In one of the most giant “oops, my bad” ever, he thought he’d landed in India.  While he didn’t quite land in India (as planned), he developed a European awareness of the American continents (Leif Ericson had already sailed from Europe to the Americas so Columbus wasn’t the first).

In the 1800’s, Columbus Day was (unofficially) celebrated in a number of cities (NYC and Baltimore).  Italian Americans, who for many years were discriminated against in the US in part because of their Catholicism, were proud of their Italian forefather and instrumental in having it declared a holiday.  For them, it was a way of celebrating Italian-American heritage.  Today, many see Columbus’ arrival as marking the beginning of problems for the Native Americans (who were already here) and the onslaught on their culture.  Thinking about it in those terms, the holiday gets a whole lot more complex.

Schoolchildren learn about the “discovery” of the Americas.  Bankers enjoy their day off.  A US friend joked that they would celebrate by: going in the wrong direction, not recognizing their destination, inaccurately reporting where they’ve been inaccurately upon their return, and do it all on someone else’s dime (also known as spending someone else’s money)!

By the way… I hear some countries in Latin America close down for the whole week to celebrate Columbus Day (known as Día de la Razain, Discovery Day in the Bahamas, Día de la Hispanidad, Fiesta Nacional in Spain, Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural in Argentina and Día de las Américas in Uruguay).  Geez… the US is getting the shaft.

Advertisements