The History of the Columbus Day Holiday

Columbus Day was declared a national holiday in 1937 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Since 1971, Columbus Day has been observed annually as a federal government holiday on the second Monday of October. All federal offices are closed in recognition of the day.

This holiday is not only celebrated in the United States, but also in Italy, Spain, and other countries in South America. However, the celebrations in these countries center around Hispanic culture and indigenous peoples.

Was Columbus the first European to set foot on North America? Turns out, Viking explorer Leif Erikson reached the continent of North America around the year 1000, almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus was born. Erikson is the first European explorer known to reach North America. After sailing across the Atlantic, Erikson landed at what is now known as Canada. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared October 9th as Leif Erikson Day, although it’s not a national holiday.

Why is there a Columbus Day if he wasn’t the first European to reach this continent? Vast transatlantic trade possibilities and colonization played a key part in the significance and enthusiasm of Columbus’ findings. His four voyages raised world-wide awareness and interest in the “New World” and all it had to offer.

In the early 1990s, Indigenous Peoples’ Day was introduced, with South Dakota being the first state to rename Columbus Day in 1990. In various cities and states across the nation, it is celebrated in addition to or instead of Columbus Day to bring awareness of the rich cultural heritage and contributions of the Native American people.

In 2019, Washington, D.C. passed a resolution to recognize the second Monday in October as Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day. The National Congress of American Indians, founded in 1944, responded with this statement,

This change allows the opportunity to bring more awareness to the unique, rich history of this land that is inextricably tied to the first peoples of this country and predates the voyage of Christopher Columbus. It also acknowledges American Indians and Alaska Natives as thriving, contemporary sovereign nations who hold their rightful place among the American family of governments.