Monday, October 14, 2013

Why is Christopher Columbus Day a federal holiday?

Trending this week: an elegant webcomic from Matthew Inman (of the Oatmeal) called "Columbus was awful (but this other guy was not)." Relying on A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, and Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen, Inman's webcomic animates Columbus's rapscallion behavior--not least of which the enslavement, sexual exploitation, dismemberment, and killing of the Taino people he met--as well as Columbus Day's mundane origin. 

Inman's comic and the discussion that followed reveal how difficult it can be to find a good human hero: Inman proposes a day to celebrate Bartolom√© de las Casas, who rejected Columbus's activities--but who advocated for African slavery. Sadly, it seems as though the comic should have been titled, "Columbus was awful (and this other guy was, too)."


Image courtesy sashafatcat

Columbus Day was created by lobbyists, and recently. In the 1930s, the Knights of Columbus pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt into federal observance of Columbus Day in honor of Christopher Columbus. The Knights of Columbus liked him because he was "a male, Catholic role model their kids could look up to." Columbus Day generated controversy even then--anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic nativists protested the holiday because Columbus was an Italian Catholic.

October 12, 1934 was the first observance recognizing the anniversary of Columbus's 1492 landing on San Salvador island in the present-day Bahamas. In 1972, President Richard Nixon established the second Monday in October as a national holiday by presidential proclamation.

Today, the law reads:
The President is requested to issue each year a proclamation—(1) designating the second Monday in October as Columbus Day;(2) calling on United States Government officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on Columbus Day; and(3) inviting the people of the United States to observe Columbus Day, in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies that express the public sentiment befitting the anniversary of the discovery of America.
36 USC § 107.

Columbus Day is not a long-standing American tradition. It is a recent creation. Laws can be repealed and new laws can be passed. Columbus Day is an important day for many Italian Americans, but wouldn't it be great if we could honor a real Italian Catholic American hero?

States, territories, and cities offer many other options to celebrate:

For more:

Suggested soundtrack: Bonnie Tyler, Holding Out for a Hero (YouTube)

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