A look into the holiday’s history shows why some cities are starting to shy away from the typical October 12th holiday.  

Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue to “discover” America in 1492. While we know that Columbus did not actually land on U.S. soil, but rather on the Caribbean islands, students still get out of school, government buildings still shut down and many people still get a day off every second Monday in October in observance of Columbus Day. But what’s the holiday all about?

While there were Columbus Day celebrations as early as 1792, the holiday was officially established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in October, 1934.  Many saw the holiday as a public relations stunt to secure the Catholic vote. Two years later, in the 1936 presidential elections, 75% of Catholics voted for FDR.

As of 2014, approximately 1 in 5 Americans identify as Catholic, but the identity wasn’t always welcomed in Protestant American society. In the late 1800s and early 1900s the US saw an increase in immigration from largely Catholic countries as famine and religious persecution spread across Europe. Immigrants were viewed as ”inferior” and the religious conflict that ensued caused anti-Catholic sentiments across the nation.

Graph of US Immigration flows from 1820 - 2010

The United States has experienced “waves” of immigration for a large part of its history. From the mid-1800s to early 1900s immigration was largely from European countries. COURTESY OF MAX GALKA FOR METROCOSM.

To unite Catholic immigrants and paint them in a positive light, an Irish Catholic priest established a fraternal organization called the Knights of Columbus. They adopted Columbus’ namesake because he was already hailed in American society despite being an Italian Catholic from Spain. Following traditional Catholic teachings, the organization went on to do immense charity work, especially during World War I and the Great Depression. 

FDR’s establishment of Columbus day in 1934 was in response to the Knights of Columbus’ charity and political work. The holiday was to recognize Irish, Italian and Spanish immigrant’s contributions to American society and was celebrated as a form of acceptance of Catholic immigrants into America’s framework. 

Today, anti-Catholicism and discrimination against European immigrants is not as prevalent as it was 100 years ago and as such the Columbus Day holiday has evolved. Instead of celebrating immigrant spirit, the holiday is viewed as a celebration of American exploration and achievement without acknowledging the colonialism and massacre of natives that came with it.

A 2019 Celebration in New York for Indigenous Persons Day

An Indigenous Peoples Day Celebration in New York in 2019. Many cities have started to shift away from Columbus Day celebrations to honor Native Americans and Immigrant spirit in other ways. COURTESY OF JEREMY DENNIS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES.

Therefore many cities have started to change their Columbus Day celebrations. The state of Colorado has adopted October 12th as Frances Xavier Cabrini Day in order to continue celebrating Catholic Italian-American immigrants without celebrating Columbus himself. Other places, like Arizona and the cities of Houston and Grand Rapids have started honoring Indigenous People’s Day to recognize Columbus’ acts against native islanders he came in contact with. 

This is not to change the holiday’s original intent of celebrating immigrant achievements and contributions, but rather to change the symbol used to convey it. Immigrants have always played a crucial role in the country’s history and it’s important to recognize their contributions, whether it be through Columbus Day or other means. 

To view an interactive map of US Indigenous Populations, click here

We are curious, what do you think of Columbus Day?