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Columbus Day History: How It Became a Holiday

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Columbus Day has a rich history as a holiday -- even though many of us do not enjoy a day off work.

Enacted by Congress to celebrate explorer Christopher Columbus' voyage and accomplishments, this holiday inspires pride in some... and outrage in others.

How did this controversial holiday come to be?

Columbus Day Roots in History, Culture

It is rightly noted by many that while Columbus was one of the first Europeans to arrive in North America -- he anchored in the Bahamas -- he didn't actually reach the land mass that makes up the contemporary United States. So why did our country enact a holiday after him?

According to National Public Radio, Italian immigrants to the United States were among the first to celebrate Columbus -- an Italian who sailed for Spain -- and his journey. Colorado was the first state to officially observe a Columbus Day holiday in 1906.

Around the same time, Norwegian immigrants were lobbying for a holiday commemorating arguably the first European to land in America, Leif Erikson, who is remembered in a U.S. national day of observance on October 9.

But in 1934, according to NPR, Columbus Day became a federal holiday under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration, largely thanks to the influence of the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic fraternal society.

Columbus Day Celebration Today

According to the National Columbus Celebration Association, the 1934 Congress passed a joint resolution requesting every October 12 to be declared "Columbus Day."

That resolution has since been repealed and replaced with the current law, which proclaims every second Monday in October to be celebrated as Columbus Day, inviting "the people of the United States" to observe and celebrate it in ways honoring "the discovery of America."

For federal employees, Columbus Day means -- at the very least -- a paid day off. But for other Americans, it's not a day to celebrate at all; critics see the holiday as government recognition of a man who committed atrocities against native peoples in the name of colonialism and profiteering.

Although Columbus day is a federal holiday, each state can still choose whether to officially acknowledge it as a state holiday. Many cities -- in light of the controversy -- have chosen instead to celebrate "Indigenous People's Day" on the second Monday of October, as a form of counter-celebration.

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