If you’re lucky enough to be able to take Columbus Day as a holiday, you can thank the celebration of a misunderstanding for it. Here are some facts about the holiday.
Columbus Day, compared to some other holidays, doesn’t get equal respect. Banks and federal offices will be closed, but some municipal and local offices will still be open for business. Most schools are likely to be open, too, depending on your community. The bond market is closed, but the New York Stock Exchange is open.
The day commemorates Christopher Columbus’s historic voyage in 1492, which has been wrongly described as his discovery of America; in fact, he landed in the West Indies. But the real accomplishment was proving conventional European wisdom wrong by demonstrating that the world did not end somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Here are some other facts about the day:
1. Christopher Columbus was convinced he’d found a route to the Far East.
Yes, he thought he’d proved that you could sail west from Europe and reach the eastern shore of China, which would make sense if the earth were round and there was nothing in between the two. But when you consider people were certain that sailing west from Europe would result in your ship falling off the “flat” world, arriving anywhere was an accomplishment, even if you had no clue where it was you actually did land.
2. Columbus used an almanac to outsmart native Cubans.
Fed up with Columbus’s crew, islanders in Cuba decided enough was enough and refused to give him food. Columbus, as the story goes, secretly consulted an almanac and warned the natives that he’d “take away the moon”. What followed — as he already knew — was a lunar eclipse. The shocked natives changed their tune.
3. The first celebration of Columbus Day took 300 years to happen.
The Society of St. Tammany in New York organized the first observance of Columbus’s “discovery” of America in 1792. In 1866, the Italian population of New York decided to celebrate it again. President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed a 400th anniversary celebration in 1892.
It wasn’t until 1937, however, until President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed October 12th — the actual date Columbus set foot on San Salvador Island in 1492 — as the official date for the annual holiday of Columbus Day. In 1971, Congress, hoping to create a guaranteed three-day weekend, moved the date to the second Monday of October.
4. Native Americans don’t always share the enthusiasm of the day.
That’s not exactly a surprise, considering how they fared once Europeans started arriving. In South Dakota, for example, what the rest of us know as Columbus Day is called “Native Americans Day” and state offices are closed. In Oklahoma, stats offices stay open, but the day is celebrated individually by each tribe by renaming it in favor of their tribal names, like “Cherokee Day”. Each of the eight other nearby tribes name the day accordingly.
5. The Columbus expeditions introduced new foods and fibers, improving diets and trade opportunities.
Columbus introduced wheat, barley, rye, sugar, bananas and citrus fruits to the Americas. They also introduced the Americas to horses, cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. Corn and potatoes are among the crops that made their way around the world from the Americas.
6. Columbus’s expeditions are blamed for several disease outbreaks.
New diseases that had previously been restricted to Europe followed Columbus’s crew to the New World. After 1492, sailors began inadvertently introducing such delights as smallpox, measles, mumps, whooping cough, chicken pox, typhus and influenza to the natives. Researchers classify this as being among the largest demographic disasters in human history.
7. Retailers use it to make room for holiday merchandise.
Columbus Day is one of the best days of the year to find great deals. That’s because retailers need the shelf space to move in holiday items. (They’ve likely already got their Christmas decorations up.) Major retailers like Best Buy, Macy’s and J.C. Penney are among those offering special promotions.
8. Columbus was hard to keep track of after he died.
In 2006, forensics settled a century-old dispute between Spain and the Dominican Republic. Both claimed their respective countries were the final resting place of Christopher Columbus.
Columbus wanted to be buried in the Americas, but when he died in 1506, there was no established church that would take his remains. So he was buried in Valladolid, Spain. In 1509, his remains were moved to a monastery near Seville. In 1537, the widow of one of the explorer’s sons had the remains sent to the Santo Domingo cathedral. In 1795, the real confusion began. Spain shipped remains it believed to be those of Columbus to Havana, Cuba where they stayed until 1898. That’s when those bones returned to Seville. But in 1877, workers in that Santo Domingo cathedral found a box of bones with an inscription that indicated they were Columbus’s remains.
That’s how both countries managed to argue their sets of remains were the “real” ones.
Do you get the holiday off from work or are you spending your Monday at the office?