Columbus Day is celebrated each year on the second Monday in October. It is in honor of Christopher Columbus, the explorer who brought Europeans to the Americas. It is also a celebration of the growth of our nation since the Pilgrims first arrived and began eking out a life in the new land.
Although Columbus first landed in America on October 12, 1492, the first celebration of this day did not happen until 300 years later, in 1792. The first Columbus Day celebration happened in New York as part of the 300-year celebration of the nation. Since Columbus was Italian-Catholic, Italian communities started organizing annual ceremonies and parades in the explorer’s honor.
In 1892, 100 years later, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation celebrating 400 years since Columbus first landed in the Americas. The proclamation encouraged Americans to celebrate with patriotic festivities. Harrison said, “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.”
It was still nearly four more decades before Columbus Day became a national holiday. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, after a lot of pressure from the Knights of Columbus, an influential Catholic fraternal organization, proclaimed the first official day to honor Columbus. However, it was President Richard Nixon who signed the official proclamation in 1972 that designated the second Monday in October officially as Christopher Columbus Day.
Columbus vs. Indigenous Day
Not everyone was happy to have a day honoring the explorer, especially Native Americans. To the indigenous peoples, that day marks a dark time in history because it was the beginning of the end of their way of life. As Europeans came in and started settling, land was being gobbled up, and the indigenous peoples saw their homes and lands disappear as the newcomers grew in numbers.
For decades, Native Americans have fought to remove Columbus Day. Recently, that movement has grown so that several states and cities have cast out the foreign explorer and replaced his celebration with Indigenous Peoples Day, in honor of the natives who had settled the land long before Europeans came to the area. The idea behind Indigenous Peoples Day is to get Americans to rethink history. It’s not just about the discovery of new lands, but also new cultures. Before Columbus came across the sea, Europeans had not had many encounters with the inhabitants (aside from the Vikings who were in America centuries earlier), their way of life, and so forth. This reimagined day is meant to remind people that there was another way of life before the colonials conquered the land. It is meant to remind people of all the Native Americans lost with the European arrivals.
South Dakota was the first state to rename Columbus Day in 1990. Berkeley, CA, in 1992, was the first city to do the same. Hawaii changed the day’s name and focus as well; they call it Discoverers’ Day in honor of the Polynesian navigators who settled the island.