Columbus Day is a U.S. holiday that commemorates the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Americas in 1492, and Columbus Day 2021 occurs on Monday, October 11. It was unofficially celebrated in a number of cities and states as early as the 18th century, but did not become a federal holiday until 1937. For many, the holiday is a way of both honoring Columbus’ achievements and celebrating Italian-American heritage. But throughout its history, Columbus Day and the man who inspired it have generated controversy, and many alternatives to the holiday have proposed since the 1970s including Indigenous Peoples' Day, now celebrated in several U.S. states.
READ MORE: Christopher Columbus: How The Explorer's Legend Grew—Then Drew Fire
Christopher Columbus was an Italian-born explorer who set sail in August 1492, bound for Asia with backing from the Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella aboard the ships the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.
Columbus intended to chart a western sea route to China, India and the fabled gold and spice islands of Asia. Instead, on October 12, 1492, he landed in the Bahamas, becoming the first European to explore the Americas since the Vikings established colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland during the 10th century.
READ MORE: The Ships of Christopher Columbus Were Sleek, Fast—And Cramped
Later that October, Columbus sighted Cuba and believed it was mainland China; in December the expedition found Hispaniola, which he thought might be Japan. There, he established Spain’s first colony in the Americas with 39 of his men.
In March 1493, Columbus returned to Spain in triumph, bearing gold, spices and “Indian” captives. The explorer crossed the Atlantic several more times before his death in 1506.
It wasn’t until his third journey that Columbus finally realized he hadn’t reached Asia but instead had stumbled upon a continent previously unknown to Europeans.
WATCH: Columbus: The Lost Voyage on HISTORY Vault
Columbus Day in the United States
The first Columbus Day celebration took place in 1792, when New York’s Columbian Order—better known as Tammany Hall—held an event to commemorate the historic landing’s 300th anniversary. Taking pride in Columbus’ birthplace and faith, Italian and Catholic communities in various parts of the country began organizing annual religious ceremonies and parades in his honor.
In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation encouraging Americans to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage with patriotic festivities, writing, “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.”
In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday, largely as a result of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, an influential Catholic fraternal organization.
Columbus Day is observed on the second Monday of October. While Columbus Day is a federal government holiday meaning all federal offices are closed, not all states grant it as a day off from work.
Columbus Day Alternatives
Controversy over Columbus Day dates back to the 19th century, when anti-immigrant groups in the United States rejected the holiday because of its association with Catholicism.
In recent decades, Native Americans and other groups have protested the celebration of an event that resulted in the colonization of the Americas, the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade and the deaths of millions from murder and disease.
European settlers brought a host of infectious diseases, including smallpox and influenza that decimated indigenous populations. Warfare between Native Americans and European colonists claimed many lives as well.
READ MORE: Why Columbus Day Courts Controversy
Indigenous Peoples' Day
The image of Christopher Columbus as an intrepid hero has also been called into question. Upon arriving in the Bahamas, the explorer and his men forced the native peoples they found there into slavery. Later, while serving as the governor of Hispaniola, he allegedly imposed barbaric forms of punishment, including torture.
In many Latin American nations, the anniversary of Columbus’ landing has traditionally been observed as the Dìa de la Raza (“Day of the Race”), a celebration of Hispanic culture’s diverse roots. In 2002, Venezuela renamed the holiday Dìa de la Resistencia Indìgena (“Day of Indigenous Resistance”) to recognize native peoples and their experience.
Several U.S. cities and states have replaced Columbus Day with alternative days of remembrance. States including Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon commemorate Indigenous Peoples' Day, as well as cities like Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
READ MORE: What Is Indigenous Peoples' Day?
When Is Columbus Day?
Columbus Day was originally observed every October 12, but was changed to the second Monday in October beginning in 1971.
In some parts of the United States, Columbus Day has evolved into a celebration of Italian-American heritage. Local groups host parades and street fairs featuring colorful costumes, music and Italian food. In places that use the day to honor indigenous peoples, activities include pow-wows, traditional dance events and lessons about Native American culture.
Columbus Day &ndash
Columbus Day is a U.S. holiday celebrated on October 11 commemorating the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Americas in 1492. Over the last few decades however, this celebration has faced serious controversy due to Christopher Columbus’ various horrific acts against Native Americans throughout his life as an explorer. Because of this, many places in California, New York, Minnesota, Colorado, and more have transformed this holiday into Indigenous People’s Day. This day no longer has to be a painful reminder, but a positive symbol of how we’ve progressed and evolved. So, if you’re one of the lucky people who don’t have work today, now’s your chance to educate yourself on Native American culture and learn more about the origins of our nation!
Dept. of Education’s Removal of Columbus Day Sparks OutrageA statue of Christopher Columbus stands in the plaza in front of the New York State Supreme Court building in downtown Brooklyn. (File photo)
WINDSOR TERRACE — In a series of moves that caused confusion, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) eliminated Columbus Day from its list of official school holidays, replaced it with Indigenous People’s Day, then abruptly changed course again when faced with a backlash.
Columbus Day, which falls this year on Monday, Oct. 11, will now be known by the double moniker of “Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day.”
Despite the last-minute inclusion of Italian Heritage, the fallout from the DOE’s Columbus controversy shows no signs of abating any time soon.
The controversy erupted Tuesday when, without advance notice, the DOE posted its holiday calendar for the upcoming 2021-2022 school year. There was no mention of Columbus Day on the calendar. Instead, Oct. 11 was listed as Indigenous People’s Day.
“Columbus is sacred, especially to Italian-Americans,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio told Currents News. Removing the holiday from the city’s schoolchildren “is kind of an insult in many ways,” he said. “I just don’t think we should insult anybody by taking away a symbolic character that helps define the history of a people and their pride because we want to enhance the pride of another group. We should do both.”
“But I also see it as an affront to the Church,” he added.
Bishop DiMarzio described the legendary explorer as a deeply religious man.
“He was a very, very faithful man. He was a Third Order Franciscan. He led his men in prayer on the boats each day. He brought missionaries with him,” he said.
In recent years, several cities across the U.S. have scrapped Columbus Day celebrations and replaced the holiday with Indigenous People’s Day amid charges that the Italian explorer subjected indigenous people to extreme violence and cruelty during his travels to the New World.
In several cities, protesters have toppled statues of Christopher Columbus or defaced the monuments with graffiti.
However, the DOE’s move caught many by surprise and caused a significant backlash.
The Columbus Heritage Coalition reached out to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office requesting that he overturn the DOE’s decision. The organization is also considering taking legal action.
The issue is bigger than changing the name of a school holiday, according to Angelo Vivolo, president of the coalition.
“We’re doing this in support of Italians, in support of Columbus. But we’re supporting every ethnicity and every race so no one is discriminated against,” he told Currents News.
Leaders of the Federation of Italian-American Organizations (FIAO) of Brooklyn. Ltd., the group that sponsors the Brooklyn Columbus Day Parade, issued a statement blasting the decision.
“We are disappointed that a holiday that celebrates the contributions of Italian-Americans to New York City has been erased by the Department of Education,” read the statement signed by Chairman Carlo Scissura and President Jack Spatola. “Their small step to at least acknowledge Italian-American day is a start. But doing this without meeting or discussing with the Italian-American community in New York City is not acceptable and is a clear lack of transparency on their part.
“It’s shocking that the entity entrusted with educating children would act in such a disrespectful manner to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.”
Andre DiMino, a member of the executive board of the Italian-American organization One Voice Coalition, said lumping the two holidays together is wrong.
“Celebrate Italian-Americans with the day they always had, which is Columbus Day, and celebrate Indigenous People’s Day on another day,” DiMino said. “Why dilute them both by putting them together?”
DiMino also charged that the DOE’s move is an attack on Catholics, calling the decision an attempt “to destroy our faith and our heritage.”
Bishop DiMarzio said the DOE is engaging in revisionist history.
“I don’t think we want revisionist history. We want all history. Teach all of history correctly,” he said, adding that eliminating Columbus Day is denying Italian-American students their right to learn about their history and heritage.
“It’s a process of revisionist history that has been going on for quite a while. I’m not sure what they’re going to do with the Columbus Day Parade,” the bishop said.
Councilman Mark Treyger, chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, told reporters the DOE didn’t consult with his committee before eliminating Columbus Day. Treyger said he was getting numerous calls from people outraged by the move.
Even City Hall appeared to be caught by surprise. A mayoral spokesman said they disagreed with leaving out Italian Heritage and wanted it to be included in the holiday.
Two lawmakers who represent neighborhoods in the Diocese of Brooklyn, State Senators Diane Savino (Brooklyn) and Joseph Addabbo (Queens), issued a joint statement condemning the DOE’s action. Savino and Addabbo said they were not satisfied by the DOE’s attempts to make amends by rebranding the holiday Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day.
“In one blockheaded decision, they have harmed both communities and fanned the flames of division,” their statement read.
“Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day will celebrate the contributions and legacies of Italian-Americans and recognize that native people are the first inhabitants of the land that became our country,” DOE spokesperson Danielle Filson said in a statement. “By including these holidays on our calendar, we are honoring the past, present, and future contributions of indigenous communities and Italian Americans.”
Columbus did have an undeniable impact on the world, but whether that impact is worthy of celebration remains debatable.
Many Italian Americans celebrate Columbus Day as an opportunity to recognize Italian migration to America and the impact Italian Americans have had on the country. When Italians first immigrated to the U.S. between 1880 and 1920, anti-Italianism — especially against darker-skinned southern Italians — led to gang violence against many who came to the U.S. escaping poverty and working in cities as laborers. Advocates for the holiday say Columbus Day has historical value of unifying Italian Americans, the New York Times reports.
Protestors have vandalized statues of Columbus in cities like New York City and Salt Lake City, but some believe that tearing down statues is a misguided attempt to erase history. Advocates against Columbus Day say that this history — which led to centuries of genocide, forced assimilation, land-stealing and natural resource exploitation by white settlers — is not worth celebrating with public statues.
“For us, the bottom line is Columbus Day is just a celebration of genocide,” Roberto Borrero, president of the United Confederation of Taino People, told the New York Times in 2018.
Leif Erikson – The First To Reach America?
Was Columbus the first European to set foot on North America? Turns out, Viking explorer Leif Erikson reached the continent of North America around the year 1000, almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus was born. Erikson is the first European explorer known to reach North America. After sailing across the Atlantic, Erikson landed at what is now known as Canada. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared October 9th as Leif Erikson Day, although it’s not a national holiday.
Why is there a Columbus Day if he wasn’t the first European to reach this continent? Vast transatlantic trade possibilities and colonization played a key part in the significance and enthusiasm of Columbus’ findings. His four voyages raised world-wide awareness and interest in the “New World” and all it had to offer.
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A School District Got Rid of Columbus Day. It Didn’t Stop There.
A month ago, the school board in a northern New Jersey suburb followed the lead of at least six other states and scores of municipalitie.
A month ago, the school board in a northern New Jersey suburb followed the lead of at least six other states and scores of municipalities when it voted unanimously to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Outrage followed, prompting the district to approve an extreme workaround intended to sidestep the complicated terrain of identity politics in an increasingly polarized nation: Holidays from school would no longer be labeled on the district calendar at all.
Rosh Hashana, Thanksgiving, Veterans Day and the second Monday in October — whatever it might be called — would instead be marked only as “day off” from school in Randolph, a township about 40 miles west of New York City.
Then, on Wednesday, the school board said it was considering a complete about-face, scheduling a meeting for next week to consider a resolution that would restore all holiday names, including Columbus Day, to the district’s calendar.
“Their attempt to address diversity essentially has caused division,” said State Senator Anthony M. Bucco, a Republican who represents the township. “By trying to make everything vanilla, you lose that sense of diversity.”
The controversy comes as the country grapples with how to recognize historical figures that are seen as symbols of white supremacy. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in Minneapolis, statues of Columbus and Civil War leaders have been defaced, toppled or removed in cities across the country.
Last month, New York City, which operates the country’s largest school system, faced criticism after initially trying to rename Columbus Day for Indigenous people. In response, the city similarly attempted to split the difference: The second Monday in October is now labeled Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day on school calendars.
The convoluted back-and-forth in Randolph may itself be harmful to students’ understanding of Columbus’s role in history, the treatment of Native Americans and the origins of the holiday, said Leslie Wilson, a professor of history at Montclair State University in New Jersey who has spoken on panels about renaming Columbus Day.
“Now kids don’t know what to believe anymore,” Dr. Wilson said. “Everyone is confused.”
A spokesman for Randolph Township Schools said board members would have no comment before Monday’s meeting. The superintendent, he said, had no involvement in the holiday-naming decisions and also would have no comment.
The resolution — the only item of new business on the agenda for next week’s meeting — states that “the Board of Education hereby rescinds the action taken at the June 10, 2021, meeting removing the names of all holidays from the school district calendar.”
Randolph, an affluent Morris County township of about 25,000 people, is 80 percent white no residents identify as Native American, according to the most recent census data available. There are four recognized Native American tribes in New Jersey, including the Ramapough Lenape Indian Nation, which is based in the northern section of the state.
The initiative to rename Columbus Day reportedly stemmed from a recommendation by a local diversity and inclusion committee.
The board approved the name change on May 13, after minimal discussion, and then backtracked earlier this month.
One online petition last month drew more than 1,100 signatures and comments criticizing “woke” cancel culture. A second petition calling for the immediate resignation of the superintendent and board members generated more than 4,000 signatures and a flurry of media attention.
The board said its decision had been “misconstrued” and that the meaning behind the unnamed holidays would still be taught.
“Schools will still be closed on the days that we originally approved and our children will know why,” the board explained on Sunday in a statement.
Senator Bucco was among those who spoke out against renaming Columbus Day at last Thursday’s raucous board meeting. He said he was heartened that the school calendar may restore the names of all state and federal holidays.
“If they want to add Indigenous Peoples’ Day to the calendar, then by all means do it,” he said. “But don’t violate Italian Americans’ civil rights by removing only them.”
Columbus Day has been celebrated as a federal holiday on the second Monday of October since 1971, according to the Library of Congress, but has been observed for centuries. The first recorded celebration was in New York City in 1792. In 1892, then-President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation that recommended local celebrations, in part in response to anti-Catholic and anti-Italian sentiments and the murder of 11 Sicilian men in New Orleans.
New York and New Jersey are home to the country’s largest populations of residents who identify as Italian American.
Ten miles north of Randolph, a section of Interstate Route 80 is named Christopher Columbus Highway.
“You can’t revise history,” said State Senator Joseph Pennacchio, a Republican who has been a vocal supporter of retaining the Columbus Day holiday and statues honoring the controversial explorer.
Though Columbus, who is thought to have been born in Genoa, Italy, but sailed for Spain, is often credited with discovering America, he never actually set foot on the continental United States. Millions of people were already living in North America in 1492 and those opposed to naming the holiday in Columbus’s honor note that his journey encouraged centuries of exploitation of Native Americans.
Dr. Wilson said that Columbus’s significant contributions to exploration and trade should be taught alongside his role in enslaving original inhabitants of the islands he colonized.
“I think we don’t understand the true Columbus because we never did,” he said. “We learned the poem and we never went beyond that.”
In 1990, South Dakota became the first state to rename the holiday Native American Day.
At least five other states and 130 cities and towns have since renamed the holiday in honor of Indigenous people, and governors of several other states have issued executive orders that remove Columbus Day from state calendars.
In New Jersey, Newark and Princeton observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day but a statewide effort last year to rename Columbus Day collapsed New York City still holds the largest Columbus Day parade in the country.
In October 2019, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, marched in the parade, Native Americans gathered for a two-day celebration on Randalls Island.
A similar Indigenous Peoples Day in New York City is scheduled for October, in a year that also saw the country’s first Native American appointed to a Cabinet-level agency. Deb Haaland, a congressional representative from New Mexico and a Laguna Pueblo citizen, took over the Interior Department in March.
It is unclear what will be decided on Monday when the Randolph school board meets. The resolution under consideration states, in part, that the district will revert to the school calendar “as it existed prior to the board’s May 13, 2021, meeting,” and add any additional state and federal holidays that had not been listed.
On Friday, for example, New Jersey will recognize Juneteenth as a holiday for the first time, in commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States.
Senator Pennacchio, who is Italian and grew up in Brooklyn, said he had fought to preserve Columbus Day as a way to recognize Italian Americans’ significant contributions to the country.
“It’s a symbol,” he said, “of the hard work that Italian Americans put into this country.”
Happy Columbus Day Quotes & Sayings
- Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World – by Christopher Columbus
- One can never cross the ocean unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore – by Christopher Columbus
- The significance of Columbus’s discovery was that on a round earth, humanity is more interconnected than on a flat one. On a round Earth, the two most distant points are closer together than they are on a flat Earth – by Matt Taibbi
- It is hoped that by God’s help, some of the hidden continents in the Ocean will be discovered… for the Glory of God – by Christoper Columbus
- If Columbus had an advisory committee he would probably still be at the dock – by Arthur Goldberg
Who Was Christopher Columbus?
Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer and navigator. We don’t know a whole lot about his early life, but do know he was born sometime before October 31, 1451. We also know he was mostly self-educated, coming to be well-versed in geography, astronomy, and history. From a young age, Columbus learned about the sea and traveled a lot. Later in life, driven by a desire to profit from the spice trade, he would become obsessed with finding a western sea route to China, India, and the rest of Asia.
(Despite the common myth, in the era of Columbus, most people already knew the Earth was a sphere. What was not known was that the Americas, and an even larger ocean, existed between Europe and Asia.)
In 1492, the joint Catholic Monarchs of Spain would agree to sponsor Columbus and his crew on a journey westward. Columbus would set sail in August of that year, leaving Spain with three ships. A couple months later, on October 12th, he landed on an island that is now part of the Bahamas.
Columbus and his men would go on to visit the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. He would set up a settlement in what is now Haiti, the first European colony in the New World since the Norse came to North America in the 10th century.
(Another misconception is that Columbus was the first European to “discover” America. He was not. The Vikings beat him by some 500 years.)
In March, 1493, Columbus would return to Spain a hero, bringing back with him gold, spices, and slaves. He would ultimately cross the Atlantic again three other times. It wasn’t until his third voyage that Columbus finally realized he wasn’t in Asia, but a whole new continent. He died in 1506.
Joseph R. Zordan ’26
Bad River Ojibwe
Ph.D. Student in History of Art and Architecture
Even if Columbus Day were to reach its end in name, the things it represents— the doctrine of discovery, manifest destiny, etc. — are foundational to the myth that is America. The specter of Columbus will not be exorcised so easily from the land. But that doesn’t make the move to rename this day Indigenous Peoples’ Day meaningless. With each year I’ve been moved by the grace and dignity that we, as Indigenous people, have given ourselves on that day.
After centuries of the United States and Canadian governments attempting to make our culture, lives, and sovereignty illegible or nonexistent, we are still able to find one another wherever we go. I have been heartened too by the non-Indigenous people who have joined us in celebration, reflection, and reckoning with the difficult histories of colonialism and genocide. If we are to heal, to find a way to live here together, these processes are indispensable. While renaming Columbus Day to honor Indigenous peoples will not do this alone, I believe it has created a new space to allow for such connections and work to begin.