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For the Italian Who Got Credit For Discovering America: Columbus Day

Out of the seven federal holidays ( of the year Columbus Day is the one I think the least about. What I remember off hand about the man behind the holiday is part of the rhyme they taught us in school, which is how I know Columbus landed “here” in 1492.

“In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue……The first American?  No, not quite. But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.”

But if we want to be factually correct Columbus never actually got to North America. The first of the four trips he made to and from Spain landed him on the Bahamas, which I think is even better. I would have stayed there in that natural beauty. However poor Columbus thought he had discovered India as he had hoped, hence the turn of phrase (American) Indians.

In the name of research I checked with my younger peers who are in kindergarten and first grade and they confirmed that in school they are still learning about the names of these ships and Columbus’s alleged claim to fame. I suppose that’s a little young to bring up mass murder and have a discussion about how we robbed this land from the Native Americans, if there is even an appropriate age for that conversation I don’t know.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a hero of mine, signed the law establishing Columbus Day as a national holiday in 1937. By 1971 it was to be celebrated on the second Monday of October every year. The law had been strongly encouraged by the Knights of Columbus “an influential Catholic group that wanted a Catholic hero to be honored, proclaimed Oct. 12 to be Columbus Day, a national holiday.” The passage of an official Columbus Day was more a final step in this process as Italians held their own celebrations as early at 1792.

Growing up in Brooklyn, the Knights of Columbus was a name we knew well. Everyone I knew that a party at one time or another at the Knights of Columbus and their American legion halls. I had no idea that the organization was related to this explorer. The Knights originally formed in the late 1880s as a Catholic organization to help immigrants arriving in this country. Eventually it became the fraternal society we know today.

In an article last year in the Washington Post:

“You may have learned in school that Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492 in the NiƱa, the Pinta and the Santa Maria and proved for the first time in history that the earth wasn’t flat. Actually, he didn’t — discover America or prove that the earth wasn’t flat, and there is some question as to the names of his ships.”

Recently the debate over this federal holiday is becoming more and more intense. There is a movement aimed at renaming this day as Indigenous People Day. Arizona is one of the latest states to vote and make this change. California was among the first in 1992.

However that doesn’t quite make sense to me. I agree that Columbus Day the way it is celebrated and taught in school skims over the hard to acknowledge truths. We need to be inclusive. Perhaps we need a national explorers day instead of deciding who gets all of the credit. We know for sure that there were others who actually traveled to North America long before Columbus came close. Last but certainly not least are the Native Americans who never get the proper credit for being the original settlers of our land. This topic has many sides and can be debated on and on. It is hardly a situation that is black and white. It is grey no matter how you slice it.

There is even some speculation that Columbus wasn’t Italian but too much of a micro issue for me much. As of now I suppose the only fact we know about for sure is that Christopher Columbus existed. Although I guess we could speculate further about that if we so wished.

For tonight though I am going to take a broader approach. I am going to acknowledge that Columbus didn’t discover America, but I have learned a lot about the world just from my desire to understand this holiday.

I am going to take one second to thank my fellow “Italian” despite all of the confusion his legend has caused, for I get to have a free day off from work tomorrow. I will spend the day in my nice quiet house, writing, reading, and thinking of those Knights. 

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