Columbus Day and the Cost of Ignoring History

It's about understanding our history -- not a three-day weekend

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    NEWSLETTERS

    New York Public Library Digital Collection

    When I was growing up in the Bronx, Columbus Day was a day we cherished. It was regularly celebrated on October 12, the actual day Christopher Columbus landed on the Bahamian island of San Salvador, believing erroneously that he had found outlying territories of East Asia. We cherished the day because it was a day off from school -- but at the same time it was an actual moment in history that we were celebrating.

    Now we celebrate Columbus’s voyage on October 10 or 11th or whatever day merges into a three-day weekend in mid-October. It’s similar to what we’ve done with other one-day school holidays like Lincoln’s birthday, February 12th or Washington’s birthday, February 22d.

    In our zeal to give ourselves three-day weekends and enable merchants to celebrate our great leaders with spectacular advertising and monster sales, we’ve ignored history. I guess some people don’t care. But I do. We need to teach kids to revere our heroes and celebrate their lives because, in a real sense, we then celebrate our own lives and the world we live in.

    Columbus was an interesting guy. A New York Times reviewer summed  up that he was: “a visionary explorer. He was a Christianizing messiah. He was a pitiless slave master. He was a lionhearted seaman, a rapacious plunderer, a masterly navigator, a Janus-faced schemer, a liberator of oppressed tribes, a delusional megalomaniac.”  Controversial, fascinating.  One of the most important figures in our history. And it might seem inconsequential. But, to celebrate his stormy life is to celebrate our history.

    Lincoln and Washington had strong links to New York.  Lincoln made a speech at Cooper Union in 1860 that was decisive in his campaign to win the presidency. “Let us have the faith,”  he told his audience,  “that right makes might and in that faith let  us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.” The New Yorkers present, many among the city’s major leaders, cheered long and loudly. Four New York newspapers ran the text in full and soon it appeared in papers throughout the country. Three months later he won the Republican nomination.

    New York had a love affair with George Washington. In 1789, down where his statue stands at Wall and Broad, he took the oath of office here as President of the United States.  “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God!”

    The crowd cheered lustily and chanted: “Long live George Washington, President of the United States!”

    In an editorial back in 1971, TheTimes criticized the then newly installed practice of creating three-day weekends .

    The editorial deplored “one more sacrifice of tradition at a time that commodity is in seriously short supply. Draining holidays of meaning color, the plan [of three-day holidays] does honor chiefly to the dollar. Obviously it is good for travel agencies, motels, gas stations and chronic weekenders. But if that is all the holidays are to mean, then why retain even their names? They  might as well be numbered.”

    Why, indeed. For the school children alone, it’s worth celebrating our heroes on their proper birthdays. It was tradition -- and a tradition worth keeping. Maybe some day we’ll bring it back.