International Observance: Learn history on Columbus Day

The Columbus Day Parade in New YorkMONDAY, OCTOBER 10: Controversy surrounds today’s international holiday, as indigenous groups, the Knights of Columbus and other Christian leaders continue to engage in the debate over Columbus Day. Since at least 1792, Americans have been celebrating the day Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas.

Many have viewed Columbus as a hero who brought scientific progress to the Americas, shared agricultural abundance in important ways—and forever linked the cultures and opportunities of two hemispheres. For example, the rise of Indian culture in the American Great Plains could not have happened without the introduction of horses to the Americas in the wake of Columbus’ voyages. In opposition, “groups have protested the celebration of an event that indirectly resulted in the colonization of the Americas and the death of millions: European settlers brought a host of infectious diseases, including smallpox and influenza, that decimated indigenous populations; warfare between Native Americans and the colonists claimed many lives as well,” according to an extensive website about Columbus and Columbus Day.

National observances of this day are not limited to the United States. Many Latin American countries have coined this day “Dia de la Raza,” or “Day of the [Hispanic] People,” and in the Bahamas, today is “Discovery Day.” (Wikipedia has details.)

One of the first countries to raise an issue with such a culturally controversial day was Costa Rica, which refocused the day as “Day of the Cultures” and recognizing the many cultures that make up Costa Rica. The Knights of Columbus urged President Roosevelt to sign the holiday into law in 1937, but debates continued. (Understand Columbus’ role in U.S. history with help from the Library of Congress site.) Eventually, the character of Columbus himself was brought into question. By 1992, indigenous people around the world termed Columbus Day “International Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People;” the National Council of Churches asked Christians to refrain from celebrating Columbus’ quincentennial; and in 2004, Venezuelans pulled down a public statue of Columbus and sprayed graffiti on its pedestal.

Whether or not you agree with Columbus Day, several American cities host parades today and many Americans receive a day off of work. (Kids can find Columbus Day crafts and more at Kaboose.)

Italian-Americans have long claimed today as a type of Italian-American heritage day—as Columbus was Italian-born—and have promoted Italian culture on the second Monday of October. (For tasty Italian recipes, visit MSNBC’s Columbus Day feature.)

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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