COLUMBUS DAY – HOLIDAY
Why do we celebrate Columbus Day? What is the importance of this holiday? What are some of its traditions?
Many countries in the New World and elsewhere celebrate the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, which happened on October 12, 1492, as a holiday or official celebration. The landing is celebrated as Columbus Day in the United States, as Dia de la Raza (“Day of the Race”) in many countries in Latin America, as Discovery Day in the Bahamas, as Día de la Hispanidad and Fiesta Nacional in Spain, as Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural (Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity) in Argentina, as Dia de las Americas (Day of the Americas) in Belize and Uruguay and as Giornata Nazionale di Cristopher Columbus or Fiesta Nazionale di Cristopher Columbus in Italy and in the Little Italy’s around the world. These holidays have been celebrated unofficially since the late 18th century, and officially in various areas since the early 20th century. This holiday has met with a long history of opposition with several regions in the United States either refusing to observe it or celebrating a different event entirely.
Columbus Day first became an official state holiday in Colorado in 1906, and became a federal holiday in the United States in 1937, though people have celebrated Columbus’s voyage since the colonial period. In 1792, New York City and other U.S. cities celebrated the 300th anniversary of his landing in the New World. President Benjamin Harrison called upon the people of the United States to celebrate Columbus Day on the 400th anniversary of the event. During the four hundredth anniversary in 1892, teachers, preachers, poets and politicians used Columbus Day rituals to teach ideals of patriotism. These patriotic rituals were framed around themes such as support for war, citizenship boundaries, the importance of loyalty to the nation, and celebrating social progress.
Many Italian-Americans observe Columbus Day as a celebration of their heritage, the first occasion being in New York City on October 12, 1866. Columbus Day was first enshrined as a legal holiday in the United States through the lobbying of Angelo Noce, a first generation Italian, in Denver. The first statewide Columbus Day holiday was proclaimed by Colorado governor Jesse F. McDonald in 1905, and it was made a statutory holiday in 1907. In April 1934, as a result of lobbying by the Knights of Columbus and New York City Italian leader Generoso Pope, Congress and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made October 12 a federal holiday under the name Columbus Day.
Since 1970, the holiday has been fixed to the second Monday in October, coincidentally the same day as Thanksgiving in neighboring Canada (which was fixed to that date in 1959) (note that October 12, 1970, was a Monday). It is generally observed nowadays by banks, the bond market, the U.S. Postal Service, other federal agencies, most state government offices, many businesses, and most school districts. Some businesses and some stock exchanges remain open; also some states and municipalities abstain from observing the holiday. The traditional date of the holiday also adjoins the anniversary of the United States Navy (founded October 13, 1775), and thus both occasions are customarily observed by the Navy, and the Marine Corps.
Actual observance varies in different parts of the United States, ranging from large-scale parades and events to complete non-observance. Most states celebrate Columbus Day as an official state holiday, though many mark it as a “Day of Observance” or “Recognition” and at least four do not recognize it at all. Most states (including states where it is not a legal holiday) close schools and other state services, while others operate as normal. San Francisco claims the nation’s oldest continuously existing celebration with the Italian-American community’s annual Columbus Day Parade, which was established in 1868, while New York City boasts the largest.
As in the mainland U.S., Columbus Day is a legal holiday in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. In the United States Virgin Islands, the day is celebrated as both Columbus Day and “Puerto Rico Friendship Day”. Virginia also celebrates two legal holidays on the day, Columbus Day and Yorktown Victory Day, which honors the final victory at the Siege of Yorktown in the Revolutionary War.
Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon and South Dakota are U.S. states that do not recognize Columbus Day at all, though Hawaii and South Dakota mark the day with an alternative holiday or observance. Hawaii celebrates Discoverers’ Day, which commemorates the Polynesian discoverers of Hawaii on the same date, the second Monday of October, though the name change has not ended protest related to the observance of Columbus’ discovery. The state government does not treat either Columbus Day or Discoverers’ Day as a legal holiday; state, city and county government offices and schools are open for business. South Dakota celebrates the day as an official state holiday known as “Native American Day” rather than Columbus Day. Oregon does not recognize Columbus Day, neither as a holiday nor a commemoration; schools and public offices remain open. Iowa and Nevada do not celebrate Columbus Day as an official holiday; however, the governor is “authorized and requested” by statute to proclaim the day each year. Several other states have removed Columbus Day as a paid holiday for government workers while still maintaining it either as a day of recognition or a legal holiday for other purposes. These include California and Texas.
The date Columbus arrived in the Americas is celebrated in many countries in Latin America. The most common name for the celebration in Spanish (including in some Latin American communities in the United States) is the Día de la Raza (“day of the race” or “day of the [Hispanic] people”), commemorating the first encounters of Europeans and Native Americans. The day was first celebrated in Argentina in 1917, Venezuela and Columbia in 1921, Chile in 1922, and Mexico in 1928. The day was also celebrated under this title in Spain until 1957, when it was changed to the Dia de la Hispanidad (“Hispanic Day”) and in Venezuela until 2002, when it was changed to the Dia de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance). Originally conceived of as a celebration of Hispanic influence in the Americas, as evidenced by the complementary celebrations in Spain and Latin America, Dia de la Raza has come to be seen by some in Latin America as a counter to Columbus Day; a celebration of the resistance against the arrival of Europeans in the Americas and of the native races and cultures. In the U.S. Dia de la Raza has served as a time of mobilization for pan-ethnic Latino activists, particularly in the 1960s. Since then, La Raza has served as a periodic rallying cry for Hispanic activists. The first Hispanic March on Washington occurred on Columbus Day in 1996. The name has remained in the largest Hispanic social justice organization, the National Council of La Raza.
Between 1921 and 2002, Venezuela celebrated Dia de la Raza along with many other Latin American nations. The original holiday was officially established in 1921 under President Juan Vicente Gomez. In 2002, under President Hugo Chavez, the name was changed to Dia de la Resistencia Indigena (Day of Indigenous Resistance) to commemorate the Indigenous peoples’ resistance to European settlement. On October 12, 2004 a crowd of pro-government activists toppled the statue of Christopher Columbus in Caracas and sprayed allusive graffiti over its pedestal.
Since 1994, Costa Rica had changed the official holiday from Dia de la Raza to Dia de las Culturas (Day of the cultures) to recognize the mix of European, American, African and Asian cultures that helped to compose Costa Rican culture.
Some Caribbean countries also observe holidays related to Columbus Day. In Belize, October 12 is celebrated as Day of the Americas or Pan-American Day. In the Bahamas, it was formerly known as Discovery Day, until 2001 when it was replaced with National Hero’s Day. Since the 18th century, many Italian communities in the Americas have observed the Discovery of the New World as a celebration of their heritage; Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer, citizen of the Republic of Genoa. In Italy, Columbus Day has been officially celebrated since 2004.
Since 1987, Spain has celebrated the anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas as its Fiesta Nacional or “National Day”. Previously Spain had celebrated the day as Dia de la Hispanidad, emphasizing Spain’s ties with the Hispanidad, the international Hispanic community. In 1981 a royal decree established the Dia de la Hispanidad as a national holiday. However, in 1987 the name was changed to Fiesta Nacional, and October 12 became one of two national celebrations, along with Constitution Day on December 6. Spain’s “national day” had moved around several times during the various regime changes of the 20th century; establishing it on the day of the international Columbus celebration was part of a compromise between conservatives, who wanted to emphasize the status of the monarchy and Spain’s history, and Republicans, who wanted to commemorate Spain’s burgeoning democracy with an official holiday. Since 2000, October 12 has also been Spain’s Day of the Armed Forces, celebrated each year with a military parade in Madrid. Other than this, however, the holiday is not widely or enthusiastically celebrated in Spain; there are no other large-scale patriotic parades, marches, or other events, and the observation is generally overshadowed by the feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar.
Opposition to Columbus Day dates to at least the 19th century where activists had sought to eradicate Columbus Day celebrations because of its association with immigrants and the Knights of Columbus. They were afraid it was being used to expand Catholic influence. By far the more common opposition today, decrying Columbus’s and Europeans’ actions against the indigenous populations of the Americas, did not gain much traction until the latter half of the 20th century. This opposition has been spearheaded by indigenous groups, though it has spread into the mainstream.
Very high on the list of those expressions of non-indigenous sensibility that contribute to the perpetuation of genocidal policies against Indians are the annual Columbus Day celebration, events in which it is baldly asserted that the process, events, and circumstances described above are, at best, either acceptable or unimportant. More often, the sentiments expressed by the participants are, quite frankly, that the fate of Native America embodied in Columbus and the Columbian legacy is a matter to be openly and enthusiastically applauded as an unrivaled “boon to all mankind”.
From his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town, who reported that, although the slaves were “naked as the day they were born,” they showed “no more embarrassment than animals.” Columbus later wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.” But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.
In the summer of 1990, 350 representatives from Indian groups from all over the hemisphere, met in Quito, Ecuador, at the first Intercontinental Gathering of Indigenous People of the Americas, to mobilize against the quincentennial celebration of Columbus Day. The following summer, in Davis, California, more than a hundred Native Americans gathered for a follow-up meeting to the Quito conference. They declared October 12, 1992, “International Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People”. The largest ecumenical body in the United States, the National Council of Churches, called on Christians to refrain from celebrating the Columbus quincentennial, saying, “What represented newness of freedom, hope, and opportunity for some was the occasion for oppression, degradation and genocide for others”.