Columbus Day: A Working Holiday?





Fire up the barbecue. Get the mall-walking shoes on. About 517 years have passed since Christopher Columbus stumbled onto North America, and it's time to remember that with a three-day weekend.

Well, for some of us. While national government offices can be depended upon to celebrate a federal holiday, Columbus Day isn't a day off for all Americans. Some schools will stay open, and local bureaucrats will still shuffle paperwork...but the department store sales soldier on.

How a Holiday Is Made
Looking back, the formal recognition of Columbus Day is relatively recent. New York City threw the first recorded Columbus party in 1792, but it took New Yorkers 74 years for another big celebration. Then, Colorado scooted in to become the first state to have a Columbus Day (1905). President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided the Depression could use a new holiday, and made Oct. 12 a federal one in 1937. Under President Richard M. Nixon, Columbus Day got moved to the second Monday in October.

Columbus Controversy
According to the Wall Street Journal, 22 states don't observe the holiday. Why the disparity? Well, among other reasons, a strong contingent feels that the Genoese navigator's sailing the ocean blue in 1492 introduced a dark period of colonization. Protesters and academics have argued for years that the existing American population, plus earlier evidence of Viking houseguests, make the notion of"discovery" misleading.

These impassioned arguments around Columbus go back decades before any holiday: Efforts to make the Italian navigator a candidate for sainthood inspired a tart New York Times editorial that said Columbus got his"fleets at public expense, on the condition that he remove himself and his tediousness as far as possible toward the unknown west."

Floating Holiday
Some states have long just"observed" the holiday, but leave local government offices open. Others use the date to revere the native population who existed long before the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria sailed in. According to a Wikipedia round-up, South Dakota declares October 12 as Indigenous People's Day. Hawaii celebrates the more general Discoverers' Day, which actually refers to the Aloha State's Polynesian founders (although the bureaucrats firmly emphasize"this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday").

Tennessee, though, wins for creative calendaring: The Wall Street Journal points out that the state bumped Columbus Day to after Thanksgiving to create a four-day weekend. Indeed, the explorer's day leads in"holiday swapping"—work on that October date, get another day off later in the holiday season.

A Teachable Era
In a way, not having a day off encourages more attention and open discussion around the man, which academics encourage. Searches on Yahoo! for" christopher columbus,""pictures of christopher columbus,"" christopher columbus biography," and" christopher columbus ships" are all up—as are queries for the usual conquistadors like Amerigo Vespucci, Vasco de Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Francisco Pizarro, and Marco Polo.

They're not all from schoolkids either (though they do make up more than third of" columbus" searches). Incidentally, of all regions checking out" christopher columbus" online, the one fittingly leading the nation's lookups: Columbia, South Carolina. The state capitol may have his namesake, but it'll be working that day.

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