Why do We Celebrate Columbus Day?
This coming Monday is a national holiday. Did you know that? I didn’t. Not until I was talking to one of my friends who asked if I wanted to get out of town for the long weekend.
It’s Columbus Day. And, if you’re anything like me, you spend Columbus Day at the office and wondering why you didn’t get any mail. Which is perfectly normal. Yes, Columbus Day is a national holiday, but it’s not one of those holidays widely recognized by workplaces.
That lack of recognition even cost Owen Wilson’s eponymous character a job in You, Me and Dupree. He’s interviewing for a job at Levitz Furniture, and the conversation goes a little like this:
Dupree: “What’s your policy on Columbus Day?”
Manager: “Uh, we work.”
Dupree: “Really!?! The guy discovered the New World …”
Here’s the clip, just in case you missed it:
I have to call out Dupree here. Did Christopher Columbus discover the New World? And, if not, why do we celebrate Columbus Day at all?
Here are answers to all of your questions.
The Roots of Columbus Day in America
The roots of Columbus Day in America extend back to Italy of the late 19th century. Italy unified in 1861, becoming to a great extent the country that we know today rather than a collection is disparate states into one kingdom.
This was a pretty messy process. The Italian Peninsula once included not one but two Sicilian kingdoms, the Papal State, Sardinia, Tuscany and several different states and different times. There were battles, social unrest, political unrest, etc. — as one can imagine.
And one of the outcomes of all this unrest was massive emigration — Italians left their homeland in droves. In fact, 13 million Italians left for foreign shores between 1880 and 1915, with 4 million of those Italians coming to the United States.
Life in America for Italian Immigrants
So, about life in American for Italian immigrants during that time: It wasn’t all fun. They mostly didn’t know the language, and they mostly did manual labor and construction jobs. Naturally, they stuck together as much as possible — which is one of the reasons we now have Little Italy neighborhoods in New York and some other cities (Chicago, Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, Kansas City, Los Angeles, etc.).
Italian Americans also joined a Catholic service organization called the “Knights of Columbus,” and they used this organization to promote one of their own as a hero in the Americas — Christopher Columbus, who was from Italy.
After much pushing from the Knights, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made Oct. 12, 1937, the first-ever Columbus Day. Soon, different states began observing Columbus Day as an official holiday. And, in 1968, when the United States Congress passed its Monday Holiday Law that established several three-day weekends around federal holidays, Columbus Day was included as one.
Did Columbus Really Discover the New World?
To say that Christopher Columbus discovered the New World is an incredible stretch. We have evidence that Vikings explored Newfoundland in the 10th century, and we also have evidence that Polynesians arrived in South America more than 100 years before Columbus.
And, of course, we have Native Americans. They were here long before Columbus.
Columbus was on the hunt for gold in a land that had already been “discovered.” He didn’t find gold, but he did find people — who he decided might make good slaves.
The Blowback: Maybe Columbus Wasn’t a Hero?
There have always been people who don’t want a Columbus Day. Back in the early part of the 20th century, some didn’t want Columbus Day because they didn’t like Italians.
Today, many people don’t want a Columbus Day for a simple reason — he’s not really a historic figure to honor.
Columbus enslaved indigenous people, he oversaw their rape and torture. And he did all of this in the name of enriching himself while ostensibly spending time in the New World to win converts to Christianity.
After his initial arrival in the New World in 1492, Columbus returned several more times. He battled illness in his later years, all while battling the Spanish government for a larger portion of the profits from his “discovery.” He died in 1506 in Valladolid, Spain, most likely at the age of 54.
Alternatives to Columbus Day
It took an act of Congress to create Columbus Day, and it will take an act of Congress to do away with Columbus. Let’s go live to Capitol Hill to see if our representatives are getting anything done these days: Nope, they aren’t. So the chances of Columbus Day going by the wayside are slim and none at this point.
But, several states and cities are creating alternatives. For example, Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and South Dakota each celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day rather than Columbus Day. So too do the cities of Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
Final Thoughts on Why We Celebrate Columbus Day
There aren’t a lot of warm fuzzies for Christopher Columbus. Not as there are for other heroes like Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez. So, at this point, Columbus Day is just a day off (for some of you). And, if you’re looking for a Columbus Day opportunity, it’s a good chance to celebrate someone else or some other group — like with Indigenous Peoples Day.
So, take your holiday, but be aware of what we’re commemorating on the second Monday in October.
What are your thoughts on Columbus Day? Share in the comments section below, or send us a message directly through our contact form.