Today in History: Columbus Day

October 12th, 2012

Thought Columbus Day had already passed? Well, you would be right to think so–but did you know that for much of its history Columbus Day was celebrated on October 12? As we noted in our history of Columbus Day, it was on the morning of October 12, 1492, that the lookout on the Pinta first saw the New World. In 1866, Italian-Americans in New York City marked the day–October 12–by celebrating the explorer and his (and their) Italian heritage. And when Congress made Columbus Day an official holiday in 1934, they designated that it would be celebrated annually on October 12. It was only as a result of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which became effective in 1971, that Columbus Day is now observed on the second Monday in October.

So as we celebrate Columbus Day on the day in which New York’s Italian-Americans first observed it, consider how and why the day developed as one especially celebrated by America’s immigrants. What, according to this New York editorial first published in 1910 in The Independent, is the importance of the day? How can it be both a religious and a patriotic holiday? Although the editorial begins by saying that “Columbus Day belongs to our Catholic people,” it proceeds to suggest the importance of religion for all American citizens. What do you think of that suggestion, both for the time in which the editorial was written and for the present time?

Columbus Day is not yet generally recognized as a legal holiday, but a real holiday it is wherever a large part of the people desire it as their religious festival. For it has been created for Catholics, particularly immigrant Catholics and their children, the special Catholic holiday of the year, something like the Sunday school children’s festival day in Brooklyn and some other cities, when they march in procession and hear speeches. Christmas and Thanksgiving are religious or family holidays for all the people; Columbus Day belongs to our Catholic people.

The choice of the day is a happy one. Columbus was the first immigrant to America. He was an Italian; he was a Catholic. There have been efforts made, and some progress in them, to have him canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. The search for miracles thru his intercession, we believe, has not yet been successful, but with the new honor given to him, and the attention called to his religious spirit, it will be strange if a sufficient number of cures of the sick thru his mediation shall not be found to warrant his addition to the number of saints. He labored enough; he suffered enough; he had wonderful prophetic vision. Let him be the favorite saint of our Italian immigrants, of our Spanish citizens, and let our Irish Catholics honor him next to St. Patrick. We wonder that we have never yet had a legal St. Patrick’s holiday here in New York. Why have our Irish rulers preferred the worship of their Indian Saint Tammany!

Last week was Columbus Day in the large cities which are now possessed by our Catholic immigrants and their descendants. President Taft stood with head uncovered for hours while the procession passed by. Archbishop O’Connell reviewed the procession and he preached the commemorative sermon. Fifty thousand people took part in the Boston procession, and the rivalry for the first prize in the “floats” went to an Italian society. They marched by nationalities. Italians, Irish, French, Spanish, Hungarians and all the rest. They marched in soldierly fashion; and very marked was the order of the men who had served their three years in a European army. It was a most inspiring sight, whether in Boston, or in dozens of other cities, where the Catholic population dominates, as it does in New York, and even, slightly, in Philadelphia.


It is properly a matter of gratification and pride that this new Columbus Day is so enthusiastically celebrated. It goes for patriotism; it goes for religion. The great danger for our immigrants is that their children will lose with their religion that control of moral restraint which has kept their fathers decent. Nor is this a danger of Catholic immigrants alone; we see it in our Jewish population, and to a considerable extent in our own native Protestant population. So far as superstition has kept them in control, that is fast being lost. As fast as they can get out of parental rule young Jews in multitudes are forgetting to fast on Yom Kippur, while Sabbath is a forgotten day. There is growing up a race of hoodlums, “Apaches,” utterly lawless, irreligious and immoral. Over them priest or preacher or rabbi has no influence. If they ever had the parochial school they hated it and despise it. They have utterly broken off from their old religion and have but a dim, but unpleasant, memory of it. Possibly the reaction will come with their children, who will have no bitter religious hostilities, only utter indifference; and who may be more accessible to the influences that will be brought by the Church. There is some hope there. We remember the irreligiousness of this country at the end of the eighteenth century and the wonderful reaction that followed.

Read the rest of “The Significance of Columbus Day to New Americans” here. And check out our other Columbus Day resources here.

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