Government offices and most banks are closed today in observance of Columbus Day, but it will be pretty much business as usual for most other institutions. The stock market, for example, will be open and many retailers are promoting holiday-themed sales. Schools here are closed, but not because of the holiday. It is fall break. Columbus Day, it seems, is the Rodney Dangerfield of official holidays. It doesn't always get a whole lot of respect.
The holiday, of course, celebrates Christopher Columbus' reaching land in what subsequently came to be called the New World on Oct. 12, 1492. Though what Columbus ostensibly discovered was hardly new -- indeed, it had well-developed civilizations of its own and parts of it previously had been visited by Europeans and other non-indigneous people -- his arrival nevertheless was one of the touchstones of history.
The 1492 expedition arguably set the stage for the massive movement of Europeans and others from the Old World to the new. Those who made the trip in the centuries following Columbus' voyages are the physical and spiritual forebears of the world in which Americans live today. Such a historic landmark is worth commemoration.
Indeed, Americans have long celebrated Columbus' voyages of discovery. A New York City ceremony in 1792 celebrated his landfall's 300th anniversary in 1792. President Benjamin Harrison noted the event 100 years later. There were widespread observances around the nation in 1992 on the 500th anniversary, but all were unofficial. President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it official when he signed legislation making Oct. 12 a federal holiday, though later legislation moved it to the second Monday of October. The holiday, though, is not universally celebrated; some people, in fact, take a dim view of the commemoration.
Many American Indians correctly say that any commemoration of Columbus Day conveniently, if not purposefully, overlooks the fact that there was a viable civilization with a rich history and diverse culture in place in the New World when Columbus arrived. They add, truthfully, that the European conquest of the New World led to the near eradication of the indigenous Indian populations there. And they ask, pointedly, whether such destruction, suffering and later marginalization of an entire people in the Americas is worth celebrating.
The answer, of course, is that it is not.
Most people, in fact, fail to connect Columbus' voyages with the subsequent exploitation and near extermination of Indians. They honestly believe they are honoring a man whose voyages opened up new worlds for settlement. They fail to understand that those voyages led to a clash of civilizations in which there was only one winner. They don't think about the significant, long-lasting collateral damage that occurred as a result. Those lines of thinking should be corrected.
Americans who celebrate Columbus Day -- if they note the holiday at all -- should not do so single-mindedly. There's nothing wrong with commemorating Columbus' so-called discovery of the New World and the new age and way of life it sparked -- as long as it is done in a manner that also honors the men and women who thrived in the Americas long before his arrival.