Columbus Day in the US - History, Significance, And More

Author: Megha Agarwal on Jan 24,2024

Columbus Day 11 Oct is a holiday in the US that celebrates the landing of Christopher Columbus on the continent nearly 600 years ago. Columbus Day 11 Oct falls on Monday. It was usually celebrated in some states and cities a couple of centuries ago. But it did not develop into a federal holiday until the past 80 years. For most, the holiday is a way of honoring the achievements of Columbus and celebrating his Italian-American heritage. But throughout history, Columbus Day and the man who bought it have created controversy, and many alternative holidays have been proposed for the past 40 years, including Indigenous Peoples Day. The latter is now celebrated in many cities and states in the country.


1. Christopher Columbus


Christopher Columbus


Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer who set sail nearly 600 years ago. He was bound for Asia and had the backing from the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella on board the ships the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Nina. Christopher intended to chart a western sea route to India and China and fabled spice and gold islands of Asia. Instead, he landed in the Bahamas. Thus, he became the first European to explore the Americas since the Vikings created colonies in Newfoundland and Greenland nearly 1,000 years ago. Later that year, Christopher found Cuba and thought it was mainland China. Next, the expedition found Hispaniola. He believed that it might be Japan. So, he established Spains first colony in the Americas with nearly 40 of his men.


In March of the following year, Columbus returned to his home country in triumph. He had Indian captives, spices, and gold. He crossed the Atlantic many more times before his death some years later. It was not until another one of his journeys that he finally realized that he had not reached Asia but had landed upon a continent unknown to the Europeans.


2. Columbus Day in the United States


The first celebration of Columbus Day took place nearly 200 years ago. The Columbian Order of New York, also known as Tammany Hall, held an event to celebrate the third century of the historic voyage. Many Catholic and Italian communities in various parts of the nation began organizing annual religious parades and ceremonies in his honor as taking pride in his faith and birthplace. Nearly 200 years ago, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation that encouraged citizens to mark the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Columbus with patriotic festivities. 


He wrote, On that day let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life. After that, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made Columbus Day a national holiday. This was mainly due to the result of great lobbying by the Knights of Columbus. They were an influential Catholic fraternal organization. Columbus Day is celebrated on the second Monday of October. Columbus Day is a federal government holiday. This means that all federal offices remain closed. But not all states give a day off from work on that day.


3. Local observance of Columbus Day


Local observance of Columbus Day


The actual observance differs in various parts of the country. This ranges from complete non-observance to large-scale events and parades. Most states do not celebrate the day as an official state holiday. Several mark it as a day of observance or recognition. Many states that celebrate Columbus Day close the state services, while the others operate normally. The state of San Francisco claims the countrys oldest continuously existing celebration with the American-Italian communitys annual Columbus Day Parade. It was established by Nicola Larco nearly 300 years ago. New York City has the largest parade. It has had more than 30,000 marchers and nearly one million spectators in the past decade.


As is the case with the mainland US, Columbus Day is also celebrated as a legal holiday in the territory of Puerto Rico. In the Virgin Islands, Columbus Day is also celebrated as the Puerto Rico Friendship Day. Virginia also celebrates two holidays on the day. This includes Yorktown Victory Day. This honors the final win in the Revolutionary War at the Siege of Yorktown.


4. Columbus Day Alternatives


The controversy over Columbus Day ranges back nearly 200 years. This was when anti-immigrant groups in the US rejected the day because of its relation with Catholicism. In recent times, Native Americans and other groups have rejected the celebration of an event that led to the colonization of the Americas, the beginning of the slave trade, and the death of numerous people due to disease and murder. European people also bought many infectious diseases. This included influenza and smallpox that killed many of the indigenous populations. The war between European colonists and the Native Americans took many lives as well.


The image of Columbus as a hero has also been questioned as well. Upon reaching the Bahamas, the explorer and his colleagues forced the native peoples they found into slavery. Later, when he was the governor of Hispaniola, he imposed barbaric forms of punishment, including torture. In several Latin American countries, the anniversary of the landing has usually been observed as the day of the race. This is a celebration of the diverse roots of Hispanic culture. Twenty years ago, Venezuela named the holiday Day of Indigenous Resistance to recognize the experience of the native people. Many US states and cities have replaced Columbus Day with different days of remembrance. 


5. Non-Observance




At the end of the last century, the celebration of Columbus Day in the country began to decrease. But many Italian-Americans and other groups continue to celebrate it. Wisconsin, parts of California such as Los Angeles County, Maine, New Mexico, South Dakota, Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii, and Florida, do not celebrate it and have replaced it with Indigenous Peoples Day. South Dakota celebrates it as Native American Day and Hawaii as Discoverers Day. The lack of celebration or recognition of Columbus Day is not always because of concerns about celebrating Native Americans. A community of Scandinavian descent may observe Leif Erikson Day. In the states of Washington and Oregon, Columbus Day is not an official holiday. Nevada and Iowa do not celebrate the day as an official holiday. But the respective governors of the state are requested and authorized by statute to proclaim the day each year. Many states have removed the day as a paid holiday for state government officials. They maintain it either as a legal holiday for other purposes or as a day of recognition. These states include Texas and California.


The practice of cities and states stopping Columbus Day celebrations to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day began nearly 30 years ago in Berkeley, California. The list of cities which have now followed include Tacoma, Phoenix, Minnesota, St. Paul, Seattle, New Mexico, Santa Fe, San Francisco, Oregon, Portland, Minnesota, Mankato, Los Angeles, Denver, Cincinnati, Boise, and Austin. Columbus, Ohio, has taken the option of honoring veterans instead of Columbus. They have removed the day as a holiday. Many tribal governments in Oklahoma have named it after their tribe or celebrate it as Native American Day.



In many parts of the country, Columbus Day has evolved into a celebration of American-Italian heritage. Local groups have street fairs and parades that include Italian food, music, and colorful costumes. In locations that utilize the day to honor the indigenous peoples, the activities include lessons about the culture of Native Americans, traditional dance events, and pow-wows.




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