The Joys of Celebrating Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day (Traditional)

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Those of you old enough to remember, remember this: Columbus Day is celebrated every year on October 12th. It’s not the second Monday of October, but a specific date. We’re not the only country to celebrate Columbus Day, although the exact date of celebration may be different. The specific date varies for the same reason the specific date of George Washington’s birthday varies. Based on the Julian Calendar, widely in use in 1492, Columbus and his crew finally sighted the sandy shores of San Salvador on the morning of October 12th, five days after they observed flocks of birds, indicating they were near land.

A century after Columbus discovered America, Pope Gregory XIII decided he had had enough of all the problems with the Julian calendar and requested the Vatican mathematicians and astronomers fix the problem (namely, Easter was drifting too far from its original time of year). By coincidence, another Christopher led this effort. Christopher Clavius, who, despite having names from Greek and Latin origins, was a German Jesuit mathematician and astronomer responsible for giving Pope Gregory the goods he needed to update the calendar. In 1582, the pope issued a papal bull creating the new calendar. According to the “Gregorian” calendar, Christopher Columbus landed on San Salvador on October 21st, not October 12th.

School students look forward to Columbus Day as the first real break from school. Retailers look forward to Columbus Day as the first big sale weekend following their now summer-long “back to school” event. Italian-Americans look forward to Columbus Day as that one time in the year our country recognizes this important ethnic group.

While Columbus Day was celebrated in America in 1792, the modern Columbus Day didn’t start taking shape until 1892. To mark the 400th centennial of Columbus’ (and perhaps modernity’s greatest) discovery, President Benjamin Harrison asked all Americans to celebrate Columbus Day by creating events themed upon our common citizenship, national loyalty, and social progress.

The day soon became the holiday to honor all Catholics and Italian Americans. Indeed, it was the Knights of Columbus that convinced Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 to proclaim Columbus Day an official federal holiday. Many in the Italian American (and Catholic) community saw this action as acceptance of them and their culture into the broader American mainstream. That’s how important the joys celebrating Columbus Day are to all Italians (both for those in Italy as well as their American descendants). For those who immigrated to the United States, the recognition of Columbus Day meant their neighbors no longer viewed them as merely “Italians.” They had finally become “Italian-Americans.”

Beyond Italian-Americans, Benjamin Harrison wanted Columbus Day to represent acceptance of the variegated ancestry of all citizens of the United States. Famed American writer Martha J. Lamb couldn’t help but notice this. Upon watching the 1892 Columbus Day Parade in New York City, she wrote it showed “the flower and the fruitage of the civil and religious liberty of the American republic… children who were the descendants of the peoples of every nation, marched under one flag, the Flag of the United States…growing up to be educated American citizens, no matter what might be their creed or their origin.”

That’s the true meaning of Columbus Day, Charlie Brown. And what joy it brings to all true Americans this time of year when we all come together under that one flag to actively celebrate that, for all our unique and special differences, we are all one.

In case you forgot, (or who fell asleep in school when they taught this lesson), our national motto, etched in every coin, every paper bill, and monuments everywhere, spells out this never-ending theme.

E pluribus unum, baby, e pluribus unum.

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