When Did Columbus Day Become Just Another Monday?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 10 2011 2:04 PM

What Happened to Columbus Day?

In the old days, we had the day off.

Italian Police on Fifth Avenue in New York during the city's 66th Annual Columbus Day Parade, Oct. 11, 2010
Italian Police on Fifth Avenue in New York during the city's 66th Annual Columbus Day Parade, Oct. 11, 2010

Photograph by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images.

In Manhattan this morning, it was 70 degrees and sunny, and a fresh breeze rustled the elm trees in the park as the Explainer hustled to the office. It’s bad enough having to work on a perfect autumn day. But it’s downright galling when that perfect day also happens to be a federal holiday. When did Columbus Day become just another Monday?

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

In the early 1990s. Congress planned a “Quincentennial Jubilee” in 1992 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ Oct. 12 landing on the Bahamas. The festivities were to have sent a replica Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria sailing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in a fatuous re-enactment of the Italian explorer’s “discovery of America,” but Native American leaders joined with liberals and environmentalists to protest the celebration. Corporate sponsors never materialized, and the voyage was canceled. The same year, Berkeley, Calif., renamed the holiday “Indigenous People’s Day” in recognition of the civilizations that were nearly wiped out in the centuries following Columbus’ arrival. In most other places, Columbus Day simply withered over the years, with the political controversy serving as cover for employers to deny workers a paid vacation day.

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Perhaps the holiday’s lowest moment since 1992 came in 2009, at the height of the recession. That’s the year Baltimore and Philadelphia canceled their long-running Columbus Day parades and California dropped the holiday as a paid day off for government workers—citing budget woes, not ethical misgivings.

Federal workers and the employees of 24 states still get the holiday, but they’re now in the minority. Even the Explainer's parents, school administrators in Ohio’s capital city, are at work today. When a place called Columbus stops celebrating Columbus Day, it’s clear the holiday is out of favor.

Those who chafe at being required to work on one of the nation’s 10 federal holidays can take some solace knowing that it didn’t even exist until 1907. That’s when Italian-Americans in Denver convinced the state of Colorado to declare Columbus Day a holiday, partly in celebration of their heritage. The Knights of Columbus successfully lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to make it a federal holiday in the 1930s. Today, Italian-American groups still hold Columbus Day marches in several cities, including Denver, where they are routinely attended by angry protesters.

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Explainer thanks the Council of State Governments.