American Holidays: Columbus Day

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11635

Columbus Day is still a federal holiday, though some people say it shouldn’t be. What’s all the commotion about? Is Columbus someone worth celebrating, or should we forget all about him? You decide!

categories

Social Studies, United States

subject
Social Studies
learning style
Visual
personality style
Beaver
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

You probably learned this rhyme in grade school on Columbus Day to help remember when America was discovered:

  • How has a fun holiday celebrated by children become one of the most controversial holidays in the United States?

Christopher Columbus is considered by many to be the first European to explore the Americas.

Christopher Columbus

Columbus Day is meant to be a holiday that celebrates the famous explorer and his discovery of the Americas. While this sounds like a reason to celebrate, many people question whether Columbus should be celebrated or not.

  • As you complete this lesson, consider whether or not Christopher Columbus should have a national holiday, and keep a list of reasons in support of your conclusion!

If you have not completed the nine previous Related Lessons in this American Holidays series, sail on to the right-hand sidebar and explore them in order.


Christopher Columbus was commissioned by the King and Queen of Spain to find a new route to Asia in 1492. On October 12, 1492, Columbus and his crew landed in what they thought was Asia, but it was actually the Bahamas.

Map-makers at the time didn't know that a whole continent lay between Europe and Asia!

The beige map below shows what people believed the Atlantic Ocean looked like at the time on top of our more accurate modern map in white:

map of the Atlantic Ocean according to Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli in 1474

Image by Bartholomew, J.G., via Wikimedia Commons is in the public domain.

Some people believe that Columbus was not a good navigator because he ended up somewhere he didn't want to be. However, as you can see from the map, he was heading exactly in the right direction according to the knowledge people had at that time.

Several months after landing in the New World, Columbus returned to Spain with gold, spices, and some indigenous people. The riches Columbus brought back prompted several more journeys back, and he was eventually made the governor of the West Indies.

map of the Caribbean Sea and its islands

Image by Kmusser, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Columbus is accused of tyranny and enslavement of the native peoples during his reign as governor. It seems that he used the native people to work in gold mines to earn money for himself and his family.

He did force people to work, but they were not slaves in the sense of other people owning them, He was copying the feudal system used in Europe at the time.

Columbus and his men also introduced new germs and diseases to which the natives had never been exposed, though of course, that was not done purposely or knowingly. Many natives died during this time, though it's not clear whether the majority died from disease or from hard work and ill-treatment.

Columbus did give some very harsh punishments to people who didn't do what he wanted, and the king and queen punished him for that.

There is also some historical evidence that the enemies of Spain exaggerated the actions of Columbus in the New World.

For example, Columbus' own journal is often quoted (or misquoted) against him. It's very difficult to find out if these quotes are correct because the original does not exist anymore, and all we have is a copy that was written by someone who was known to be his enemy.

Also, since the copy of the journal is in Italian, sometimes the statements that are quoted are not translated correctly, and they are often taken out of context.

Many dispute Columbus Day because, technically, Columbus was not the first European to discover the Americas. Around the year 1000 A.D., the Norse Vikings landed in Greenland and Newfoundland, a region off the east coast of present-day Canada.

Those in support of Columbus Day say that while Columbus did not discover the Americas, he did begin an era of European exploration in the Americas. They also say that Columbus lived according to the moral code of his time when feudalism was an accepted form of government.


The first Columbus Day was celebrated on October 12, 1792. Since then, many communities have held religious services and parades in his honor.

parade

In 1892, President Harrison issued an official proclamation saying the 400th anniversary should be celebrated with patriotic festivities throughout the nation.

Columbus Day, Salem, Massachusetts, 1892

Image by Frank Cousins, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Finally, in 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made October 12 a national holiday, although the holiday was not officially celebrated until 1937.

Columbus Day was celebrated with parades and festivities on October 12 each year until 1971, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed.

You have learned about the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in several of the previous lessons throughout this American Holidays series.

  • Do you remember what the Uniform Monday Holiday Act is and why it was created?

This act moved many holidays to fixed Mondays to keep the work week from being interrupted with holidays. With the passage of this act, Columbus Day was moved to the second Monday in October.


Today, Columbus Day is still celebrated with parades and festivals, and some people are still given time off from work and school.

To learn more about Columbus Day, watch History of the Holidays: Columbus Day | History:

In recent years, Columbus Day has not received as much recognition as it did in former years.

Some states have even traded Columbus Day for a different holiday.

For example, people in South Dakota celebrate Native Americans' Day. People in Berkeley, California, celebrate Indigenous People's Day. Hawaii celebrates Discoverer's Day.

Each of these festive occasions is used to celebrate and honor the local indigenous people groups.

  • Have you decided whether or not you think Columbus Day should be a holiday?
  • Do you have your list of reasons supporting your opinion?

Hold on to this list because you will use it for the activity in the Go! section.

When you are ready, move on to the Got It? section to learn more about the holidays celebrated in place of Columbus Day.

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