Columbus Day – A Non-Holiday Holiday

Holidays usually celebrate something. Columbus Day used to, but he has become a somewhat controversial historical figure, due to the decimating effect that he had on the native peoples with whom he came in contact. Columbus Day remains a legal federal holiday, but the era of parades and celebrations is long gone.

Originally, Columbus Day was observed on 12 October, but Congress later (1971) mandated that several traditional holidays be observed on Monday (creating three day weekends for workers) and Columbus Day was one of those that became a Monday holiday.

When did we actually start commemorating Columbus’s arrival in the New World?

Both the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Tammany Society in New York celebrated the tricentennial of Columbus’s arrival in 1792.

President Benjamin Harrison encouraged Americans to celebrate the quadricentennial in 1892. This seems to be the beginning of the modern era celebrations when schools included the study of Columbus in its curriculum.

Who celebrated Columbus Day?

I was actually surprised to learn that a number of countries celebrated the Columbus Day holiday – Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil in addition to Spain, Italy and the United States.

How is Columbus Day observed today?

In the United States, some states don’t acknowledge Columbus Day at all. Those that do often dedicate the day to indigenous peoples. A few states do not include Columbus Day as a paid holiday for its workers.

Why did opposition to Columbus Day begin?

Ironically, people who began to oppose Columbus Day did so not because of what happened to native peoples, but because of anti-Catholic feelings in the 19th century. The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization. was often at the forefront of the holiday celebrations.

An aside – I distinctly remember the Knights organizing the parade every year that marched along Lexington Avenue at the corner of Summer Street in Passaic, New Jersey, where I lived. The parade was always a very Catholic-oriented parade with participants from all the local Catholic churches. There were fraternal societies, women’s societies and Catholic school students and bands all taking part.

What was the impetus for change in attitude towards the celebration?

In 1992, the quincentennial of Columbus’s arrival became the turning point in public attitudes. Native Americans declared 12 October 1992 as the International Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People.

Although that didn’t stop planned commemorative events and souvenirs, annual public events on Columbus Day declined from that point onward.

Hallmark was one of many companies that issued commemorative items. I have their Christmas ornament in my collection:

Hallmark Christmas Ornament, 1992

Today, Columbus Day has pretty much become a non-holiday. Although Columbus is no longer a revered figure, the indigenous peoples celebration never caught on with the general public either.

It seems that the only people who love Columbus Day are workers who have a three-day weekend. Since holidays, by definition, celebrate or honor something or someone, and Columbus Day no longer does, it seems a bit pointless for this holiday to exist.

I’m definitely not proposing that we go back to the old days of honoring Columbus, who doesn’t deserve it, I’m just commenting that Columbus Day is redundant and there is no reason for it anymore.



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