I never gave much thought to Columbus Day. We did not get the day off from school and we weren’t taught about the day or the man whose name it bears. I knew there was a city in Ohio named after him and that he was an inept bumbler who stumbled into the discovery of the Americas.
That’s all I knew until I arrived at my first year of college last fall.
My roommate Elena is of Italian-American heritage and Columbus Day is a big event in her family and her community — every holiday is a big event for her family and community. I love my roommate and I adore her large family; I’ve been a guest at their home in suburban Milwaukee several times.
Elena’s family is very different from my own. For many years it was only my mom and I; my grandparents were and still are a big part of my life so we are a small self-contained group. We are Lutherans, eat lutefisk, girls wear candles on their heads for St. Lucia Day, we hide candy in shoes and we never show a lot of emotion in public.
Elena has three sisters and two brothers all under the age of 20. She has two sets of grandparents, cousins (I’ve never been able to count the exact number), aunts, uncles, godparents — many of which are at her house whenever we go to visit. Their family is Catholic and both of her grandmothers attend Mass daily. They eat something like lutefisk during the Christmas holidays — baccala — but they also have squid and calamari and other sea food as a Christmas tradition. They celebrate Santa Lucia as well as other feast days like St. Joseph’s Day in March, where there is a lot of feasting, hugging, kissing and song. St. Joseph’s Day is all about hospitality.
I love Elena’s family so I wanted to find out more about their traditions — Columbus Day being one of them.
According to a history website, “The first Columbus Day celebration took place in 1792, as an event to commemorate the historic landing’s 300th anniversary. Taking pride in Columbus’ birthplace and faith, Italian and Catholic communities in various parts of the country began organizing annual religious ceremonies and parades in his honor.”
In 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt declared it a national holiday. It isn’t a saint’s day like the other holidays Elena’s family celebrates. Columbus was an explorer who knew how to navigate three tiny ships across the vast un-charted expanse of the treacherous Atlantic Ocean — as such he couldn’t have been too much of a bumbler!
He was an Italian who was backed by the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. It was his intention to chart a western sea route to China and India to find an easier route to Asia. Instead he landed in the Bahamas (that is why he appears to be inept to 21st century eyes). He was the first European to explore the Americas since the Vikings established colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland in the 10th century.
In the book “1493,” I read that the discovery of the Americas led to what researchers call “The Columbian Exchange.” It is “the reason there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in Florida, chocolates in Switzerland, and chili peppers in Thailand. More important, creatures the colonists knew nothing about hitched along for the ride. Earthworms, mosquitoes, and cockroaches; honeybees, dandelions, and African grasses; bacteria, fungi, and viruses; rats of every description — all of them rushed like eager tourists into lands that had never seen their like before, changing lives and landscapes across the planet.”
Is Christopher Columbus considered a saint?
No, he isn’t.
I’ve also learned that the discovery of the New World resulted in the colonization of the Americas and the death of millions. When Columbus landed in the Bahamas, he and his men forced the native people they found there into slavery; later, while serving as the governor of Hispaniola, he is said to have imposed barbaric forms of punishment, including torture.
Columbus used violence and slavery, and he and his men forced conversion of native people to Christianity. Their arrival in the Americas introduced a host of new diseases that would have dramatic, long-term effects on native people.
Christopher Columbus was no saint and he shouldn’t be venerated as one. My friend’s family doesn’t consider Columbus Day a day to pay homage to the man. It is more of an Italian-American heritage day. It is a day to remember Italian-American traditions.
But the day isn’t exclusive to Italian-American’s. Here are alternatives I have found on the history website: “In many Latin American nations, the anniversary of Columbus’ landing has traditionally been observed as the Dìa de la Raza (Day of the Race), a celebration of Hispanic culture’s diverse roots. In 2002, Venezuela renamed the holiday Dìa de la Resistencia Indìgena (Day of Indigenous Resistance) to recognize native peoples and their experience. Several U.S. cities and states have replaced Columbus Day with alternative days of remembrance; examples include Berkeley’s Indigenous Peoples Day, South Dakota’s Native American Day and Hawaii’s Discoverer’s Day, which commemorates the arrival of Polynesian settlers.”
You might also want to read:
Build a right relationship between us
November is National Native American Heritage Month
A relationship with native nations