Columbus Day

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Columbus Day,

holiday commemorating Christopher Columbus's discovery of America. It has been traditionally celebrated on Oct. 12 throughout most of the United States, parts of Canada, and in several of the Latin American republics. In the United States, however, since the observation in 1971 of the Uniform Holiday Act, it is celebrated on the Monday nearest to Oct. 12.
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Columbus Day

Type of Holiday: Historic, National
Date of Observation: Second Monday in October
Where Celebrated: Italy, Latin America, Mexico, United States, and most Spanishspeaking nations
Symbols and Customs: Parades, Reenactments


Most educated Europeans in the fifteenth century believed that the earth was round, but even the best geographers thought that there were 10,000 miles of ocean between Europe and the East Indies, and few believed that a ship could successfully complete such a difficult journey. Christopher Columbus, a forty-sixyear-old Italian explorer, was confident that it was barely a quarter of that distance, and his gross underestimation probably made him more courageous than he should have been when he set out on August 3, 1492, to find the so-called Spice Islands, also known as the Moluccas or East Indies. His famous voyage was financed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, who hoped that he would bring back spices-in particular pepper, used in the days before refrigeration to preserve meats and to disguise unpleasant tastes.

Columbus not only underestimated the distance but failed to realize that another huge land mass lay between Europe and Asia. So when he arrived two months later on the island he named San Salvador, now believed to be Watling's Island in the Bahamas, he thought he had reached the East Indies. The "Indians" he encountered there were actually members of the Arawak tribe. They lacked spices, gold, or anything else worth bringing back, but they were peaceful and helpful, and they served as guides during the remainder of his voyage.

Columbus made three other voyages over a nine-year period, eventually visting Dominica, Jamaica, Trinidad, and the mouth of the Orinoco River on the South American mainland. His fourth voyage took him down to the Isthmus of Panama, but he never found the westward passage that would take him home around the world, and he eventually returned to Spain for the last time in 1504. He lost his patron when Queen Isabella died a few weeks later, and Columbus himself died in 1506, poverty-stricken and with his achievements largely forgotten.

The celebration of Columbus's birthday is especially popular in Italy and among Italian-Americans in cities like New York and Philadelphia. Observances are also widespread in Spain, from which he launched his voyages, and in Mexico, where Columbus Day is part of the celebration of Día de la Raza, or Day of the Race. The first observance in the United States was held in New York City in 1792, the 300th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage. But another hundred years elapsed before a nationwide celebration was held in 1892. The Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic society for men founded in 1882, urged state legislatures repeatedly to declare October 12 a legal holiday, but it was not until 1901 that New York became the first state to do so. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed a law designating the second Monday in October a national holiday. National holidays can be defined as those commemorations that a nation's government has deemed important enough to warrant inclusion in the list of official public holidays. They tend to honor a person or event that has been critical in the development of the nation and its identity. Such people and events usually reflect values and traditions shared by a large portion of the citizenry.

For Americans, the very act of celebrating notable occasions-like the Fourth of July, battle anniversaries, and others-nurtured patriotism and national identity. It was crucial for the new nation, which lacked a shared history and ancient local heroes, to invent traditions and mark important national occasions. The shared experience of celebrating common holidays created a bond of tradition and a sense of belonging to a relatively new homeland. As more and diverse peoples migrated to the United States, it became even more important to celebrate significant annual anniversaries.

But these celebrations can change over the years. In the late twentieth century, as the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage approached, radical reassessments of Columbus and his effect on the New World appeared in the popular and academic press. The cultural and historical climate had changed. Many people questioned the validity of giving Columbus credit for "discovering" America.

In particular, the American Indian movement of the 1960s and 1970s did much to present a long-neglected side of the Columbus story-the perspectives of the peoples who lived on the continents for centuries before Europeans arrived. Thus, the 500th anniversary proved to be another instance when the actions of this pivotal figure from American history galvanized the interest of the public.

Today it remains a day of protest and mourning for some, commemoration of an ancestor for others. The Transform Columbus Day Alliance, a coalition of groups that participate in annual protests at Denver's Columbus Day Parade, the longest-running parade in America, urges the abolition of the Columbus Day holiday and instead "[advocates] a celebration that is much more inclusive and more accurately reflective of the cultural and racial richness of the Americas." In recent years, several U.S. cities and states, including Alabama, South Dakota, and Hawaii, have renamed Columbus Day to be more reflective of America's dawning cultural sensitivity.



Probably the best-known celebration of Columbus Day is the huge parade that takes place in New York City, where more than 35,000 marchers and over one million spectators, including members of the Knights of Columbus and ItalianAmerican groups, march up Fifth Avenue. Local, state, and national political leaders often participate in the parade or review the procession as it passes. Later in the day, they usually attend a Columbus Day dinner in one of the city's hotels.

The Columbus Day parade is also a big event in Boston, alternating between downtown in odd-numbered years and Revere/East Boston in even-numbered years. On the West Coast, the largest parades take place in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Although parades were not generally a part of the Anglo-American observance of Columbus Day until after 1892, in many ways they resemble Italian religious processions.


Reenactments of Columbus's first landing in the New World are held in various locations across the United States. In the seaside community of Asbury Park, New Jersey, there is a pageant depicting the landing of Columbus on the Sunday nearest October 12. A city employee portrays Christopher Columbus as he disembarks from the longboat that has just brought him to shore, while "Indians" emerge from a simulated village set up on the beach to welcome the explorer. After the mayor delivers a speech, a member of the local Sons of Italy lodge lays a wreath at the base of the explorer's statue.

In San Francisco, tepees are erected on the beach in Aquatic Park, and individuals wearing colorful Indian costumes walk among them. Queen Isabella, with her attendants, arrives on a float from the parade, and shortly afterward, three boats provided by the city's Italian fishermen enter the cove and drop their anchors. Christopher Columbus and a few of his men come ashore in a rowboat and proceed to the Indian village, where they smoke a peace pipe with the Indian chief. Then he walks over to the platform that represents the queen's court in Barcelona, and she listens while he recounts the highlights of his voyage.

The typical landing reenactment probably derives from the scene depicted in John Vanderlyn's painting, The Landing of Columbus, which was commissioned for the U.S. Capitol rotunda in 1839 and was later reproduced widely on U.S. postage stamps.


Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Dunkling, Leslie. A Dictionary of Days. New York: Facts on File, 1988. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Humphrey, Grace. Stories of the World's Holidays. 1923. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. McSpadden, J. Walker. The Book of Holidays. New York: Crowell, 1958. Schaun, George and Virginia, and David Wisniewski. American Holidays and Special Days. 3rd ed. Lanham: Maryland Historical Press, 2002. Trawicky, Bernard, and Ruth W. Gregory. Anniversaries and Holidays. 5th ed. Chicago: American Library Assocation, 2000. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986.


Library of Congress
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Columbus Day

Second Monday in October
When the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) persuaded King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to provide financial backing for his plan to find a new route to the Orient by sailing west, he was confident that only about 2,400 miles of ocean separated the two continents—a gross underestimation, as it turned out. And when he first landed in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, he believed that he'd reached the East Indies. Despite these errors in judgment, Columbus is credited with opening the New World to European colonization, and the anniversary of his landing on the Bahamian island of San Salvador is commemorated not only in the United States but in Italy and most of the Spanish-speaking nations of the world.
Also known as Landing Day, Discoverers' Day (in Hawaii), Discovery Day, Hispanity Day in Spain, and in many Latin American countries as Día de la Raza or Day of the Race, the second Monday in October is celebrated in this country with parades, patriotic ceremonies, and pageants reenacting the historic landing. A mammoth parade up Fifth Avenue in New York City is a Columbus Day tradition.
In 1991, the spirit of political correctness affected Berkeley, California, as Columbus Day was cancelled in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day. Likewise, the Student Senate at the University of Cincinnati declared that myths about Columbus may not be studied or discussed—the University is "a Columbus-myth-free-campus."
Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave. S.E.
Washington, DC 20540
202-707-5000; fax: 202-707-2076
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 703
BkDays-1864, vol. II, p. 437
BkFest-1937, p. 18
BkHolWrld-1986, Oct 12
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 255
DictDays-1988, pp. 22, 31
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 419
OxYear-1999, p. 412
PatHols-2006, p. 73

Celebrated in: Honduras

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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Analia Berdun-Pereira: El Dia de la Raza Pride Award - Class of 2007