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The History of Columbus Day

"In a museum in Havana there are two skulls of Christopher Columbus, one when he was a boy and one when he was a man."
--- Mark Twain

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Christopher Columbus may be famous today as an explorer, but  he died in 1506 in poverty and most of his achievements basically forgotten. Originally born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy (his parents were a wool merchant and weaver) he took off at the age of 14 to sail. A shipwreck off the coast of Portugal in 1470 caused him to swim ashore and there he settled briefly and then moved to Spain.

 Christopher Columbus' discovery of America was a combination of:  pure accident, a big ego and hugely under estimating the real distance between Europe and the East Indies. Back in the 15th Century, many did believe that the earth was round, but they also believed that there was a distance of 10,000 miles of ocean to cross between Europe and the East Indies.  And a only an elite group actually believed a ship could make this journey successfully.

At the time, Christopher Columbus was 46 years old.  He was an Italian explorer, who wasn't so good on calculations.  He grossly miscalculated the distance of 10,000 to be only 2,500 (a quarter of what it really is).  So some say when he set sail on August 3, 1492, he wasn't courageous, he was misguided. ;0 They feel that if he really really knew how long it was, he wouldn't have gone.

But Columbus had no intention of finding America. He wanted to find the Spice Islands aka Moluccas or East Indies.  And his financial backing did not come from Italy, but from Spain.  King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, were hoping he'd bring them back spices -- especially pepper!  Why?  Pepper was an essential spice in those days to preserve meat (they didn't have refrigeration yet) and disguise bad tastes.


No only did Columbus underestimate the distance, he somehow had no clue that there was this big huge landmass (aka North America) between Europe and the East Indies. So, after being at sea for 2 months,  on October 12, 1492, he landed on an island in the Bahamas, which he named San Salvador (Some historians believe Watling's Island in the Bahamas is where he really landed) , haughty and proud thinking he had accomplished his goal of sailing to the East Indies.  

The Arawak Indians greeted him, but, they didn't have any spices let alone pepper. They also had no gold or really anything worth bringing back to Spain.  You can imagine what Columbus thought!  The trip was a total bust. But, to Columbus' dying day, he believed he had reached the East Indies.  He just felt it wasn't his fault they didn't have the spices that were so rumored about.

But, the Arawak Indians were peaceful.  They served as guides to help Columbus for the remainder of his voyage.  I shall insert a joke here.  Those of us who are Italian often remark that it's a good thing Columbus wasn't afraid to ask for directions or he'd never have found anything! ;)

Well, Columbus sailed and sailed and sailed.  In a 9 year time frame, he made 3 voyages eventually discovering: Dominica, Jamaica, Trinidad and the mouth of the Orinoco River on the S. American mainland.  On his 4th and final voyage of his life, he made it down to the Isthmus of Panama, but he never did find the East Indies, all those spices, gold etc. that he expected.

He returned back to Spain in 1504 only to have his patron Queen Isabella die a few weeks later.  Without her, he basically was a pauper and as I said in the beginning, he died 2 years later in 1506 in poverty.


 Even though America wasn't named after Columbus (It was named after Amerigo  Vespucci, who followed Columbus afterwards.) it's an observance that has been taken very seriously in this country for many years.

The first Columbus Day celebration took place in  New York City in 1792, the 300th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage. This was done by The Society of St. Tammany, also known as the Columbian Order.  As time went on, the Italian population of New York City annually celebrated Columbus's discovery.  It is believed that the Compagnia del Toro al Bersaglio di New York Sharpshooter's Association began the festivities.  Soon other Italian Associations followed them in other parts of the country. So that by 1869, in New York City, Columbus Day was celebrated very elaborately with sharp shooting contests, dancing, festivals and Italian ships in the harbor all decorated.
(Note: Some communities held turkey shoots on Columbus Day. But due to many charges of animal cruelty, they no longer are held.)

However, in San Francisco they celebrated on October 17, 1869  and called it Discovery Day. The event was organized by  Nicola Larco, a community leader and business partner of the chocolate magnate, Domenico Ghirardelli, a year earlier. Mr. Larco also founded  La Societé Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza (Began in 1858 and is oldest continuously-existing Italian-American organization in the United States). San Francisco annually puts on a Columbus Day parade and claims to have the oldest continuously-existing Italian-American celebration in this country. 


 Columbus Day is embedded into the Italian-American culture. So, later on when the California Capitol in Sacramento was being restored, architects suggested that the Columbus statue that had been erected on the capitol grounds in 1882 be removed. Italian-American politicians and other organizations caused a stir of protest about that.  And, so the statue was reinstalled and kept.

The most common way Columbus Day is celebrated is with a parade where mostly Italian-Americans and Knights of Columbus members  parade up the street.  In New York, over 100,000 people march up 5th Avenue, along with local and state politicians.  And some hotels host a Columbus Day dinner.

Boston also has a Columbus Day parade of smaller size around 8,000 people  that march about 4 miles from the city's Back Bay area to the North End.  Los Angeles and San Francisco have the largest parades on the West Coast.  Some believe that the parade for Columbus Day is a reflection of the Italian religious processions of the Catholic religion. 

Another way to celebrate Columbus Day is to reenact his first landing in the new world.  Many seaside communities across the United States hold Columbus Day pageants and reenactments.

Many people feel the idea to do the reenactment originates from the painting by John Vanderlyn called "The Landing of Columbus."  This painting was commission for the U.S. Capitol rotunda in 1839 and was later reproduced on postage stamps.

The celebration of Columbus Day is mostly popular in Italy. Spain, of course highly celebrates Columbus Day, especially where he launched his 3 ships: The Nina, The Pinta and The Santa Maria.   In Mexico, Columbus Day is part of their Dia de la Raza (Day of the Race) celebration. 




In 1907, Colorado was the first state to make Columbus Day a legal holiday, due to a drive led by a local prominenti aided by the Italian consul in Denver.

 But it took another 100 years before a national celebration was held in 1892.  The Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic society for men (founded in 1882) petitioned state legislatures over and over to declare October 12 a legal holiday. 

For the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage, President Benjamin Harrison made a commemorative proclamation in 1892 at the opening of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

 In 1905,  Colorado (not New York) became the first state to observe Columbus Day, proclaimed by then Governor Jesse F. McDonald. This means the entire State, not just a city. People get this confused.  But, it wasn't made an official holiday in Colorado until 1907.  Since 1920, Columbus Day has been celebrated annually by communities, or states in some manner. Although President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 proclaimed every October 12 as Columbus Day, regardless of the day of the week it landed on. Well proclaiming a holiday and actually making it legitimate are two different things.

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed a law officially making the second Monday in October a federal holiday to observe Columbus Day!




However, not everyone supports having a Columbus Day for various reasons.  Columbus Day is not a legal holiday in Nevada.  In Berkeley, CA (since 1992) they've changed the title to "Indigenous People's Day."  South Dakota calls it "Native American Day." And, Hawaii doesn't officially honor Columbus Day either. 



Additional Links about  
Christopher Columbus the Man:

Today in History October 12

Miscellaneous Christopher Columbus Facts

Caribbean Hotels - Columbus Discovers The Caribbean!


Don't feel it was Columbus who should get credit for discovering America when he really landed in the Bahamas?

Read about Leif Erikson, who many feel is the real explorer who discovered North America

Leif Erikson - Norwegian Government

Return to our Month of October

Information Source: "Holiday Symbols, 2nd Edition"
by Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. © 2000

"America Celebrates" by Hennig Cohen and Tristram Potter Coffin
Visible Ink Press, Detroit, Michigan  © 1991

Wikipedia-Columbus Day


Midi Title: "Go to the Distance" from Disney

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