If you blinked, you may have missed Columbus Day last week. I couldn’t find a Columbus documentary on television. Most workers don’t get the day off anymore. As cash-strapped governments negotiate fewer paid holidays with employees, the first one over the side by mutual agreement is almost always Columbus Day. Most businesses no longer plan on Columbus Day being a big day. 16 states don’t recognize it as a holiday.
Columbus Day, meet Labor Day, another holiday that gets less and less respect. Labor Day has withered, but Columbus Day is in a crosshair. Some cities, universities and school systems have replaced it with “Indigenous Peoples Day” or “Native Americans Day.”
Here is a holiday that has to change in order to survive. Those who dig in their heels, who choose not to notice the increasing percentage of graying heads at Columbus Day parades should realize that if it doesn’t evolve, it’s going away.
Columbus Day has changed before.
The holiday joined the national American consciousness with a proclamation by President Harrison in 1892. It kicked off a hemisphere-wide recognition of the 400th anniversary of the Spanish arrival, of which Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893, the Columbian Exhibition, was the focal point. Known at the beginning as either Columbus Day or Discovery Day, it was for years primarily a patriotic and optimistic celebration of how far the United States had come in a mere four centuries, and how far it could go. School children sang songs and put on plays about the country’s expansion. For many years, weekly newspapers like this one dutifully reminded readers to put out their American flags on Columbus Day. Until at least World War II, Nassau County churches coordinated Columbus Day weekend sermons; in 1936, the common theme was “the destiny of America from a spiritual standpoint.”
Most history written in the 19th and early-20th centuries was less about evaluating objective facts and more about telling an inspirational story about great people, usually with a patriotic theme. Most of us were taught a version of Columbus that contained numerous outright inaccuracies, embellishments and unverifiable speculation. But the story fit the purpose.
Today, Columbus Day is one of only two holidays left that honor a specific person (Martin Luther King’s Birthday is the other). Columbus Day’s biggest problem is Columbus.
There’s nothing vague about why Columbus has become a lightning rod, seen as a singularly dark force even among the conquistadors.
Within hours of his meeting the Caribbean people, sensing the potential for vast personal profit, Columbus wrote this in his personal journal on October 14, 1492: “I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.” In fact, on his second trip, he brought perhaps 1,500 well-armed soldiers, numerous cannons, hundreds of guns and even a large pack of attack dogs.
Columbus himself didn’t hide the brutality. Quite the contrary, in order to make it clear that any resistance was hopeless, even small infractions were punished by unspeakable mutilations. Millions died. The few that lived were almost all slaves. Even the Spanish, in the midst of the Inquisition, were appalled at his methods. Columbus wasn’t just another practitioner. He was the primary pioneer, setting the pattern for five centuries of horror when the technologically strong venture into the world.
Much of what happened cannot be described in a family newspaper. I’ve marched in the Columbus Day parade on Fifth Avenue, but as I write these words I’ve made a decision, a personal choice, not to celebrate Columbus Day. Not as it is now.
Columbus shouldn’t be erased. There are valuable lessons to be learned, even by children, and a worthy holiday probably could be designed. Until then, please leave me out.
Michael Miller has worked in state and local government. Email:email@example.com