Celebrating Columbus Day

Every Year, the Second Monday in October

A painting of Christopher Columbus landing in America, 1492 (c.1920)
A Painting of Christopher Columbus landing in America, 1492 (c.1920). Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The second Monday in October is designated in the United States as Columbus Day. This day commemorates Christopher Columbus' first sighting of the Americas on October 12, 1492. Columbus Day as a federal holiday, though, was not officially recognized until 1937.

Early Commemorations of Columbus

The first recorded ceremony commemorating the Italian explorer, navigator, and colonizer in America was in 1792. It was 300 years after his famous first voyage in 1492, the first of four voyages he made across the Atlantic with the backing of Spain's Catholic monarchs. To honor Columbus, a ceremony was held in New York City and a monument was dedicated to him in Baltimore. In 1892, a statue of Columbus was raised on New York City's Columbus Avenue. The same year, replicas of Columbus' three ships were displayed at the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago.

Creating Columbus Day

Italian Americans were key in the creation of Columbus Day. Beginning on October 12, 1866, New York City's Italian population organized a celebration of the Italian explorer's "discovery" of America. This annual celebration spread to other cities, and by 1869 there was also a Columbus Day in San Francisco.

In 1905, Colorado became the first state to observe an official Columbus Day. Over time other states followed, until 1937 when President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed every October 12 as Columbus Day. In 1971, the U.S. Congress officially designated the date of the annual federal holiday as the second Monday in October.

Current Celebrations

Since Columbus Day is a designated federal holiday, the post office, government offices, and many banks are closed. Many cities across America stage parades that day. For example, Baltimore claims to have the "Oldest Continuous Marching Parade in America" celebrating Columbus Day. Denver held its 101st Columbus Day parade in 2008. New York holds a Columbus Celebration that includes a parade down Fifth Avenue and a mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. In addition, Columbus Day is also celebrated in other parts of the world including some cities in Italy and Spain, along with parts of Canada and Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has its own public holiday on November 19 celebrating Columbus' discovery of the island. 

Critics of Columbus Day

In 1992, leading up to the 500th anniversary of Columbus' sighting of the Americas, many groups voiced their opposition to celebrations honoring Columbus, who completed four voyages with Spanish crews on Spanish ships across the Atlantic Ocean. On his first voyage to the New World, Columbus arrived in the Caribbean islands. But he mistakenly believed that he had reached East India and that the Taino, the Indigenous people he found there, were East Indians.

In a later voyage, Columbus captured more than 1,200 Taino and sent them to Europe as enslaved people. The Taino also suffered at the hands of the Spanish, former crew members on his ships who remained on the islands and used the Taino people as forced laborers, punishing them with torture and death if they resisted. The Europeans also unwittingly passed on their diseases to the Taino, who had no resistance to them. The terrible combination of forced labor and devastating new diseases would wipe out the entire population of Hispaniola in 43 years. Many people cite this tragedy as the reason why Americans should not be celebrating Columbus' accomplishments. Individuals and groups continue to speak out against and protest Columbus Day celebrations.

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Kelly, Martin. "Celebrating Columbus Day." ThoughtCo, Nov. 18, 2020, thoughtco.com/columbus-day-104712. Kelly, Martin. (2020, November 18). Celebrating Columbus Day. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/columbus-day-104712 Kelly, Martin. "Celebrating Columbus Day." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/columbus-day-104712 (accessed January 21, 2021).