What is the Significance of Columbus Day?

Photo courtesy of dogonews.com

Photo courtesy of dogonews.com

Rhea Premanand and Rachel Lewis

All across America, on the second Monday of October, people rejoice for Columbus Day. However, most of them are not celebrating the man for whom this holiday is named for, but rather because it is one of the ten yearly federal holidays provided. But who exactly is Christopher Columbus, the person we need to thank for a day off?

For other federal holidays, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, people know the significance behind them, but why is it important to celebrate Columbus Day? While most school children recognize Columbus as the explorer who “sailed the ocean blue in 1492”, what do we really know about him? More importantly, does he really deserve all of the honor he receives?

The first and most important thing about Christopher Columbus is that he was not the first person to discover America. About 500 years prior, the Norse explorer Leif Erikson actually became the first European to discover the Americas. While there is a Leif Erikson Day around the same time period as Columbus Day, it is not as widely recognized, nor is it a federal holiday.

On top of that, Native Americans had been living in the Americas for thousands of years before Columbus came along. In fact, a few states do not even officially recognize Columbus Day because of this and rather celebrate another holiday that coincides on this date: Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This day is dedicated to commemorating the history and contributions of Native Americans to society, because they really were the first people to discover America.

Since Columbus technically discovered a place already inhabited with people, many choose to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead. As this holiday is slowly gaining exposure, and exposing Columbus for his nonexistent contributions to America, maybe one day, it will fully replace Columbus Day.

There is substantial evidence that points to Columbus never landing on mainland America. We do know that he landed on the Bahamas archipelago, and current day Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. However, he continued to travel through Central America after these discoveries, never heading far enough north to reach the United States. So then why do Americans celebrate Columbus Day? Some would argue that without Christopher Columbus, America may have never come into existence.

His voyage established a constant European presence in North and South America, which have lead to European explorers actually stumbling upon current day America. But is that really a good enough reason for Americans to celebrate a day dedicated entirely to him?

If Columbus did not locate America, or even land there, why is there a national holiday dedicated to him? The purpose of this holiday was to honor Italian Catholic heritage, as Columbus was an Italian Catholic. When Americans think of Columbus Day, they think of an explorer who played a crucial part in their history.

However, if the millions of Americans who celebrate this holiday yearly really knew about the supposed “discoverer of America”, would they do anything about it? Would they protest to officially change it to Leif Erikson Day, or Indigenous Peoples’ Day? Or, would they choose to overlook all the controversies surrounding Columbus Day, and just accept it as a break from their daily lives?