Thursday, October 11, 2007

Why do we celebrate Columbus Day?

How did you observe Columbus Day? Like most people, you probably had a barbecue with your friends and neighbors. Maybe you sat on the couch and watched sports, instead. Some of you probably just mowed the lawn and set up the sprinkler for the kids to run through. Maybe it was just an extra day off of work. Maybe you don’t even remember what you did.

It begs the question then, why do we observe Columbus Day?

Columbus Day, on the second Monday in October, is meant to commemorate Oct. 12, 1492, the day when the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, sailed from Spain and ‘‘discovered” the Americas. One of the oldest holidays celebrated by the United States, Columbus Day dates back all the way to 1792, only 16 years after the United States declared its independence from Britain. It was first observed in New York City, mainly due to the city’s numerous Italian-American residents, to celebrate the 300-year anniversary of the voyage.

Although it is widely disputed by historians the world over, the general belief is that Columbus discovered the Americas. We all remember the saying from school, ‘‘In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” No one is certain exactly which island in the Caribbean he really discovered. And while it is still debated exactly where the explorer docked the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, his three flagships, it is agreed that Christopher Columbus was at least here.

In recent time, it has become less and less popular to revere Columbus. The idea that he ‘‘discovered” a portion of the world that had already been inhabited by native people for thousands of years, is pure arrogance. Even the name ‘‘America” is attributed to another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who sailed the ‘‘ocean blue” long before Columbus. Most historians even agree that the notion that the earth was round was already widely known to the educated people of Columbus’ time.

Although it is a federally observed holiday, many states have given way to popular opinion and changed the meaning behind the observance. In South Dakota, they celebrate Native American Day instead of Columbus Day. Hawaii calls their holiday Discoverer’s Day, instead. Colorado, the first state to have a state-wide celebration for Columbus Day back in 1905, has protesters every year at their Denver Columbus Day parade.

In spite of all the criticism and controversy, there is a deeper meaning behind this holiday. It really doesn’t matter when people knew America existed. We already have a holiday for that. It’s the Fourth of July. It doesn’t matter who set foot here first. The Native Americans did, no question about that.

Columbus Day is more about discovery. It’s an idea that rings true even today, just as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, ring true for every American. Discovery is the belief that the unknown is still out there. That kind of imagination and determination created a country where everyone is entitled to self-expression, freedom of religion and the right to vote. Where would we be today if we hadn’t discovered our own America for ourselves?