Columbus Day as a Federal Holiday


This article was written by Edward M. Sullivan, charter member of the Board of Directors, Treasurer of the Association, 1989-1993, Secretary of the Association, 1993-1996, and recipient of the Association's Distinguished Officer Medal at the 1996 Columbus Day ceremonies. Mr. Sullivan is a Past State Deputy of the Knights of Columbus of the District of Columbia.  It appeared in the 1996 program booklet.



Twenty-five years ago this year [1996] Columbus Day was first celebrated as a federal "public holiday." Technically, there is no such thing as a "national holiday" in the U.S., since each state establishes its own. However, the Federal Government establishes holidays for its jurisdictions and employees, and the states usually follow its lead.


The Columbus Day story goes back many years. The first known celebration of Columbus Day in the U.S. took place just sixteen years after America declared independence. On October 12, 1792, the New York Society of Tammany, known also as the Columbian Order, celebrated the third centenary of Columbus' first landfall in the New World with a dinner and elaborate ceremonies. Probably the first memorial to Columbus in the U.S was the temporary monument at its headquarters. The first permanent monument to him in the U.S. was erected in 1810 in Baltimore by one of Lafayette's former officers who settled there.


Over eighty years later, in connection with the four hundredth anniversary in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation urging citizen participation in commemorative services, and the organization of programs by schools. There were many local observances, but the centerpiece of the national celebration was the Columbian exposition in Chicago, which opened belatedly in 1893. The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag was written in honor of Columbus Day on the 400th anniversary. The first U.S. commemorative coins and stamps were also issued in connection with the event.


In 1905, the governor of Colorado issued a Columbus Day proclamation and in 1909 signed legislation passed without opposition making Columbus Day a state holiday. Before the year was out, ten states, mainly the larger ones, had followed suit, and within a decade two-thirds of the states, in all parts of the country, had done so.


Simultaneously with the movement to make Columbus Day state holidays was the drive to erect a national monument in the nation's capital, in both of which the Knights of Columbus played a very active role. (There were already monuments to Columbus in other cities in addition to Baltimore, such as Philadelphia, Boston, and Columbus, Ohio.) The latter drive bore fruit when President Taft on March 4, 1910 signed a bill introduced in the House in 1907 calling for the erection of such a monument. A scant two years later, on June 8, 1912, the unveiling took place .


Twenty-five years after the Colorado legislature acted to make Columbus Day a state holiday, Congress moved to give it national prominence. Although it was not the first presidential Columbus Day proclamation, Franklin Roosevelt's 1934 proclamation was the first of such annual actions by the president in compliance with a joint resolution of the Senate and House passed on April 30 of that year. By it Congress authorized and requested the president to "issue a proclamation designating October 12 of each year as Columbus Day" and calling for displaying the flag on all government buildings and inviting the people to observe the day with appropriate ceremonies.


It is believed that each year since the erection of the monument at Union Station in 1912, there had been such appropriate ceremonies at that location. Certainly, there were such ceremonies in 1934 , as attested by the records of the Lido Club.


On October 12, 1963 following the civic ceremony in Columbus Plaza, 150 persons of Italian descent were invited to a Rose Garden party and White House reception. From this group was born the movement to make Columbus Day a federally-recognized holiday. A National Columbus Day Committee was formed. It sponsored the 1966 celebration, when Senator John Pastore was principal speaker and music was provided by the Marine Band.


The official Senate Report No. 1293 of June 21, 1968 noted that "A large number of proposals to establish Columbus Day as a national holiday were...introduced in past sessions of Congress," and public hearings were held by appropriate subcommittees of the Senate in August, 1964, and of the House in October, 1967. S.108, making Columbus Day a legal holiday, was favorably acted on by the Senate on August 15, 1964. H.R.15951 made refinements to the Monday observance of Federal holidays, and Public Law 90-363 was later passed by the House on April 4, 1968 and by the Senate on June 21 of that year. This was the "Monday Holiday Law," which, among other things, added Columbus Day to the list of federal "public holidays," to be observed on the second Monday of each October). The effective date of the new law was January 1, 1971.


"In recommending the observance of Columbus Day," the report said, "it is the committee's judgment that such a holiday would be, as has been suggested by Representative Rodino, 'an annual reaffirmation by the American people of their faith in the future, a declaration of willing-ness to face with confidence the imponderables of unknown tomorrow.' It is also the committee's judgment that the observance of Columbus Day is an appropriate means of recognizing the United States as a 'nation of immigrants'--as we were described by the late President Kennedy. By commemorating the voyage of Columbus to the New World, we would be honoring the courage and determination which enabled generation after generation of immigrants from every nation to broaden their horizons in search of new hopes and a renewed affirmation of freedom."


There was a Columbus Day ceremony at the White House in 1970, and in 1971 when Columbus Day was first observed as a federal holiday and transferred to a Monday, there was a three-day weekend celebration in Washington, billed as "The First National Columbus Day Celebration." It was under the auspices of the National Columbus Day Committee, headed by Mariano A. Lucca of Buffalo, who had been a forceful proponent of the national holiday.


Festivities commenced with a reception Saturday evening, at the then- Statler Hilton, for governors and members of Congress. On Sunday there was an outdoor Mass and wreath-laying ceremony at noon at the Columbus monument, and a special Columbus Day concert in the evening at Constitution Hall, featuring the Navy Band and singers Frankie Lane and Maggie MacDonald. On Monday, the new public holiday itself, there was a mid-day parade on Constitution avenue, complete with floats depicting Columbus's landing; a gala concert at the Kennedy Center under the honorary patronage of Mrs. Richard M. Nixon; and a "Salute to Columbus" Victory Ball at the Washington Hilton.


Two thousand souvenir medallions depicting Columbus' landing on the obverse, and Queen Isabella on the reverse side, with suitable inscriptions, were minted and made available to participants of the celebration. The Washington Post reported with a journalistic chuckle that the American Airlines shipping costs coincidentally came to exactly $14.92!


Interestingly enough, with the new Monday holiday in place, the following year the "Second National Christopher Columbus Day Celebration," as it was called, took place on Sunday Oct 8, rather than on the new holiday. It involved a 10:30 Mass at Holy Rosary Church; a parade to the statue for the civic ceremony and wreath-laying, with remarks by Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe, Supreme Knight Dr. John K. McDevitt of the K of C, and Italian Ambassador Egidio Ortona; and a dinner and gala celebration in the evening. The celebration was sponsored by Amerito (an organization of American/Italian groups) and the K. of C. in cooperation with the National Park Service.


The 1973 celebration, billed as "The Third National Christopher Columbus Day Celebration," was held on Saturday, October 6, but followed the same pattern, with Mass at Holy Rosary, parade to the statue and the civic ceremony (at which the Army Band provided the music), and black tie dinner in the evening at the Sheraton Park Hotel. In 1974 and 1975 the religious and civic celebrations continued on Sunday, under the sponsorship of Amerito and the Knights of Columbus in cooperation with the Park Service. The Holy Rosary Band provided the music.


In 1976, the U. S. bicentennial year, there was a dinner- dance on Sunday evening, but the focus of the celebration finally moved to the Monday holiday itself, under the sponsorship of the American Italian Bicentennial Commission, Inc., and the Knights of Columbus. That year there was a special Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, then president of the Catholic bishops, as principal celebrant and homilist, and a number of out-of-town bishops of Italian descent concelebrating; a civic ceremony featuring President Ford as a speaker and wreath- layer, with music by the Navy Band; and a "Festival of the Arts" from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. featuring Italian music.


The celebrations, featuring Mass, civic ceremony, and some kind of cultural event were on Sundays to 1980, when the religious event was held on Sunday and the civic event moved to the Monday holiday. Sponsorship was by Amerito (starting in 1978) and the Knights of Columbus of the Metropolitan area in cooperation with the Park Service. The Sunday-Monday split of the religious and civic celebrations continued into the 1980s and set the pattern for the observance in the 1990s , with the exception of the major celebration in 1991 opening the year-long national K. of C. observance of the quincentenary. From 1986 to 1988, the Knights of Columbus were the principal organizer, in cooperation with the Park Service and with support of the American- Italian and Spanish organizations, the Italian and Spanish embassies, and in 1989 took the lead in establishing the Washington Columbus Celebration Association to sponsor the event in subsequent years.


Columbus Day today is celebrated throughout the U.S. Jane M. Hatch, in "The American Book of Days" (New York, 1978) gave some glimpses of the status of the holiday in the late 1970s. In Wisconsin it was called Landing Day, and in North Dakota and Indiana, Discovery Day; in Florida it was celebrated in conjunction with Farmers' Day, and in Alabama, with Fraternal Day. New York City annually featured a great parade and a Columbus Day dinner. Boston's tradition included a special anniversary Mass, wreath-laying at Columbus' statue in Louisburg Square, and a four- mile parade. Asbury Park, New Jersey had an annual pageant of the landing. Los Angeles would fly the Italian flag over city hall, raised by an Italian movie star; San Francisco would hold pageants, a waterfront cavalcade showing events from Columbus' life, a street fair, ceremonies at the Columbus statue on Telegraph Hill, a banquet, and a ball. Columbus, Ohio--to which Genoa presented a 20-foot-high statue of Columbus in 1954--had an annual four-day celebration, complete with parade, entertainments, and fireworks.


Columbus Day is also currently celebrated in many other countries, most commonly on October 12, the actual anniversary of his first landfall. That day is called Day of the Race in Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Paraguay; America's Discovery Day in Honduras; Dia de la Hispanidad in Panama; and Hispanity Day or Day of Spanish Consciousness in Spain.


Discovery Day is another popular name, but places using that title often observe a different date more appropriate to their own discovery or sighting. The following observe Discovery Day: the Bahama Islands (October 12), Cayman Islands (May 17), Haiti (December 5), Puerto Rico (October 12, also commemorating sighting of Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493), and St. Vincent (January 22, when Columbus sighted St. Vincent in 1498).

National Christopher Columbus Association - 5034 Wisconsin Avenue, NW - Washington, D.C. 20016-4125