Columbus Day: The Craziest Holiday of the Year.

It’s raining here in my hometown today, and since I’m off of work I’m taking advantage of the excuse to just sit around and sip hot cocoa. It’s a nice way to relax right before Columbus Day.

Oh, what’s that? Columbus Day was on Monday? Oh, I beg to differ!

You will notice that your calendar had a special little note on it: “Columbus Day (observed)”. That “(observed)” is there for a reason. Americans may celebrate Columbus Day on the second Monday of October, but the actual day Christopher Columbus made his first landing in the New World was October 12, 1492.

Just ask the people of Latin America and Spain, who also celebrate the holiday. Except most Latin American countries call it Dia de la Raza (literally “Day of the Race”), a holiday for celebrating their mixed Spanish, indigenous, and African cultural heritage that was made possible by Columbus’s famous voyage. Traditionally, they celebrate the date with parties and bullfighting. Many Americans with Hispanic roots will also hold Dia de la Raza celebrations.

Spain, meanwhile, has designated October 12 as its national holiday, as part of a political compromise in the 1980s. Previously, Spain had such a turbulent history that any number of holidays had been used as the “National Day”, depending on what regime was in charge. The date of Columbus’s landing was seen as a politically-neutral compromise day, helped along by the fact that it also falls on the celebration of “Our Lady of the Pillar”, a ten-day traditional Catholic festival in Spain in honor of the introduction of Christianity to the country.

But we Americans just have to be different from everybody else, don’t we? The reason for our unusual treatment of the holiday is because of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This law, signed in 1968, says that certain holidays throughout the year are not set at a fixed date, but instead at a particular Monday in a particular month. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is celebrated in the third Monday in January instead of Dr. King’s actual birthday of January 15, for instance; and Memorial Day used to be May 30 but now is the last Monday in May.

They forgot my birthday again. Let me guess, on Monday they’ll remember and get me a card.

The reason is that putting these holidays on Mondays gives workers a three-day weekend. The logic was that the move would be better for the economy: more vacations, fewer inefficient midweek shutdowns. Interestingly, this means that America celebrates Columbus Day at the same time our Canadian neighbors are celebrating their annual Thanksgiving. (Apart from the fact that both are harvest festivals that occur in the fall, Canada’s Thanksgiving has no relation to our own.)

But if you think that’s complicated, I’m just getting started.

Technically, the federal government can only designate holidays for its own employees and for Washington, D.C. The states are kind of expected to go along with the federal holiday system, but there is nothing requiring them to do so. And sometimes, they don’t.

While most states celebrate Columbus Day, three do not: Hawaii, Alaska, and South Dakota. In Hawaii, that kind of makes sense, because they are a bunch of Polynesian islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, not a part of the American continent. Instead, they make up for it by celebrating several holidays that are unique to Hawaii and celebrate that state’s history. In Alaska, they don’t celebrate it because it lies so close to Alaska Day (October 18), the anniversary of the annexation of Alaska by the United States. (Likewise, Nevada does celebrate Columbus Day but doesn’t offer it as a day off of work because it lies far too close to Nevada Day, a four-day festival at the end of October.)

South Dakota, however, refuses to honor Columbus Day for ideological reasons. Instead, they celebrate “Native American Day” on the third Monday in October.

It turns out there is an entire movement to erase Columbus Day from our nation’s calendars, and along with it our tradition of mythologizing Christopher Columbus as a hero.

Why? Well, apart from the fact that Christopher Columbus was kind of a big, fat jerk who did some awful stuff in his life, he also is a symbol in the minds of many Native Americans – and a growing number of other Americans – of the horrors that befell the indigenous people in the New World in the centuries that followed. This argument goes that celebrations of Columbus’s life and legacy and those of other explorers and pioneers who settled the Americas essentially forgives them of the acts of genocide they committed against the people they encountered, or asserts that those actions were somehow “okay”.

As activist Ward Churchill put it:

“More often, the sentiments expressed by the participants are, quite frankly, that the fate of Native America embodied in Columbus and the Columbian legacy is a matter to be openly and enthusiastically applauded as an unrivaled “boon to all mankind”. Undeniably, the situation of American Indians will not — in fact cannot — change for the better so long as such attitudes are deemed socially acceptable by the mainstream populace. Hence, such celebrations as Columbus Day must be stopped.”

Here in California, the state offers a compromise position. People, businesses, and school districts are offered a choice between honoring Columbus Day or instead honoring Cesar Chavez Day (March 31), which honors the famous civil rights and labor union leader. This leads to some interesting situations where one school will have the day off but a neighboring school will not.

So, yeah. Who would have guessed that a simple day out of the year could create such a complicated mess?

Information from Wikipedia