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Why Do Americans Celebrate Columbus Day?

Columbus Day

October 12, 2020

Columbus Day marks the day Italian explorer Christopher Columbus arrived on the shores of the Americas on October 12, 1492. As early as the 18th century, it was unofficially celebrated in several cities and states in the U.S., but it was only in 1937 that it became a federal holiday. The observance was later changed to the second Monday in October in 1971, under Presidential Proclamation PL90-363.

U.S. President Donald Trump proclaims October 12 as the official day to mark Columbus Day. It remains a legal federal holiday, but with a fixed date. The proclamation was issued on October 9, 2020.

Columbus Day honors the contributions and achievements of Italian-Americans. But there are people with radical thoughts that oppose the continued celebration of Columbus Day because of the many controversies that happened many centuries ago when Columbus and his party arrived in the United States.

As such, there was a proposal to observe Indigenous People’s Day as an alternative celebration to Columbus Day in the 1970s. In fact, several states have been celebrating it since then.

Indigenous People’s Day

In 1989, the celebration of Indigenous People’s Day started in South Dakota, headed by former governor George S. Mickelson and Mr. Lynn Hart of the Yankton Sioux Tribe. They were supporting a resolution to have a Native American Day on the second Monday of October. It was a prelude to the institution of the Year of Reconciliation in 1990. Thus, 2020 is the 30th anniversary of the Year of Reconciliation and Native American Day, an official holiday in South Dakota in lieu of Columbus Day.

Non-observance of Columbus Day

Many Italian-Americans continue to celebrate Columbus Day despite the decline of the observance in many cities and states.

Columbus Day is not recognized in Los Angeles County, Wisconsin, New Mexico, South Dakota, Maine, Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont, and Florida. Hawaii has Discoverers’ Day.

It is not a paid holiday in Texas and California, and it is not an official holiday in Washington and Oregon.

Several cities observe the Indigenous People’s Day, such as Tacoma, San Francisco, New Mexico, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Portland, Denver, Austin, Minnesota, Phoenix, Seattle, Mankato, Santa Fe, Oregon, Boise, and St. Paul, Minnesota.

Who is Christopher Columbus?

Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy. He was an explorer commissioned by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to chart a course to Asia to search for spices and gold. He followed a western sea route headed to India and China but ended in San Salvador Island (Bahamas). He became the first European to penetrate the Americas. At that time, many educated Europeans knew that the world was round, although they only knew about the Atlantic Ocean, but not the Pacific Ocean.

In the same month and year, October 1492, he saw Cuba, which he mistook for China. A few months later, he reached Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti), which he thought was Japan. During his many explorations of the Americas, he and his men established colonies for Spain.

While Columbus did not reach Asia, he reached another region, the Americas, that was unknown to Europeans at that time.

Overview of Columbus Day in the United States 

Columbus Day is a day to remember the opening of the Americas to European settlement. In the United States, the first recorded commemoration occurred on October 12, 1792, which coincided with the 300th anniversary of the landing on the shores of an island in the Bahamas.

The event was organized by the Columbian Order or the Society of St. Tammany (Tammany Hall) in New York. It was a political organization that also provided support for immigrants.

At the same time, Catholic and Italian communities in different parts of the United States started to honor the faith and birthplace of Columbus. They started to organize parades and religious ceremonies to honor him.

To mark the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Columbus in 1892, a proclamation was issued by President Benjamin Harrison. It encouraged Americans to stop working for the day and hold patriotic events to honor Columbus.

Through the lobbying of the Knights of Columbus, Columbus Day was proclaimed a national holiday by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937.

Italian-American Heritage Month

October is Italian-American Heritage and Culture Month. It honors the contributions and achievements of Italian immigrants, especially in culture, science and the arts.

According to the 2017 census data, there are 16.7 million Italian-Americans, although the population is not as widespread as Spanish-Americans. The concentrations of Italian-American population are in industrial areas such as New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut. It is not surprising because New York was the entry point for most immigrants, and they settled in areas close to where their ancestors first entered.

However, the highest concentration of Italian-Americans is in New Haven, Connecticut. Most of them are from Naples, giving rise to many Italian-inspired businesses such as restaurants, pastry shops, and pizza houses. The Italian culture in New Haven is distinctly Neapolitan, and the community holds a variety of festivals focused on Italian food and music.

Did you know that the first Italian to settle in the United States was Pietro Cesare Alberti? He was a seaman from Venice who came to the U.S. in 1635. He settled in the place that would later become known as New York City.

Many of the first Italian immigrants were peasants and artisans from various regions in Italy, particularly from Southern Italy. Many of them worked as barbers, tailors, carpenters, masons, and bricklayers. By 1913, immigrants from Northern Italy started coming in and supplied the labor force for the clothing, textiles and mining industries.

Interestingly, many of the Italian immigrants went back to Italy after earning money in the U.S.

Famous Italian-Americans

Many Italian-Americans excel in the arts. Several of them are architects who either designed various buildings, taught architecture in different universities or founded architectural companies. Some of the famous architects include Pietro Belluschi, Mario J. Ciampi, Michael Manfredi, Lawrence Scarpa, and Rosaria Piomelli.

There are so many Italian comic illustrators, cartoonists and artists, such as Joseph Barbera, Brian Azzarello, Timothy D. Bellavia, John Buscema, Anthony Flamini, Greg Capullo, Frank Frazetta, Carmine Infantino, Bob Montana, Walter Lantz, Don Rosa, John Romita, Sr., and Jim Valentino.

Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Mario Puzo, Enrico Fermi, Lee Iacocca, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Geraldine Ferraro, Antonin Scalia, are very famous Italian-Americans.

Some of the chefs whose cooking you enjoy are of Italian descent. You may recognize some of the Italian-American inventors, too, like Frank Zamboni, Dr. Andrew Viterbi, Francis Rogallo, Lorenzo Ponza, Antonio Meucci, Anthony Adducci, and the Jacuzzi family.

You’ll find many Italian-American personalities in entertainment, law enforcement, journalism, the military, politics, religion, science, academics, sports, and literature. There is also a long list of Italian-American entrepreneurs, financiers, and senior executives of top corporations in the U.S., many of which are global brands.

Status of the Italian language in the U.S.

Italian is the eighth most spoken language in the country. Based on the report of the 2009-2013 American Community Survey, 15,638,348 people claim to be Italian-Americans and 708,966 speak Italian at home. The decline is attributed to the assimilation of the English language.

Italian used to be an AP course in high school, but the College Board stopped the AP Italian exams in 2009. Fundraising campaigns headed by the Order Sons of Italy in America and the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) raised money to finance a new AP Italian program, and the College Board started administering the exams again in 2012.

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Image Copyright: Dioscoro Puebla / Public domain

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