Columbus Day (always the second Monday in October) is a rather laid-back American holiday that looks as if it’s on the way out. It’s not even given the respect that a Bank Holiday Monday is in England. What is the proper respect? Getting the day off from work or school.
Depending where in America you live, the kids might have to still go to school on Columbus Day. Certainly, most people have to work on Columbus Day now, when a few decades ago, you got the day off. Columbus Day is more of a tradition than a holiday. As the years go by and Columbus Day becomes less and less important to the average American, it will probably become just question in Trivial Pursuit.
There are no Columbus Day presents to worry about, no Columbus Day cards to send, and Columbus Day carols to drive you completely bonkers every October. It’s sort of the Italian version of St. Patrick’s Day (March 17). If you are of Italian descent or are a member of the charity organization Knights of Columbus, then Columbus Day is a day for a small parade and a big dinner. But for most Americans, Columbus Day is just another day, although you can usually find a big sale going on in every shop in the nation.
The Holiday’s Origins
Columbus Day started rowdily in the Italian district of New York City in 1866 with parades, food, dancing, music and even more food. At that time in the young nation’s history, America was gasping for heroes. America was also going through a very xenophobic phase and immigrants were very much discriminated against. It felt good to find a source of pride in one’s countrymen. Columbus was Italian (but that was forgivein) and at the time was considered the man who proved the world was round. He was considered a daring, intelligent explorer — in short, a hero.
Columbus Day was gradually absorbed by other cities and states until it was declared a national holiday in 1937. When I was a child, it was still a proper national holiday. Everything was closed and you had the day off to go to a parade. But that’s all changed now. Although St. Patrick’s Day has captured the public’s imagination, with everyone claiming to be Irish for a day, Columbus Day has not.
Columbus Day in October, is when people are pretty busy preparing for winter and the stress and expense of the winter holidays. In mid-March when St. Patrick’s day occurs, winter is nearly over and spring can usually be felt near, which instinctively puts one in a mood to celebrate spring, alcohol and nudity (not necessarily in that order.)
Over time, historians were better able to put Columbus’ discovery into perspective. It really didn’t amount to much. Columbus was NOT the first white man to discover North America. Those honors would go the Vikings, although there is a prominat legend that a Welsh sailor named Prince Madoc may have found North America in the 1100s, but this has yet to be proven.
Contrary to popular belief, Columbus couldn’t care less if the world was round. He was looking for a shortcut to India, which had a lot of goodies in demand in Europe. That was why the natives he discovered and soon to be wiped out were mistakenly called “Indians”. In other words, Columbus was looking only to get rich, not get into the history books or have a holiday named after him. He was a true American, in a way.
History.com: “Columbus Day.” http://www.history.com/topics/columbus-day
Time.com: “A Brief History of Columbus Day.” http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1929666,00.html
“Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism”; Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster (William Morrow; 2006.)
EyeWitness To History.com: “The Vikings Discover America.” http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/vikings.htm
“The Legend of Prince Madoc and the White Indians”; Dana Olsen; http://princemadoc.com/