annually on October 12th (1937 to 1970)
the second Monday in October (since 1971)
Columbus Day celebrates the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Americas on October 12, 1492. Columbus, who was financed by the Spanish monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, was attempting to find a western route to Asia—to China, India, and Asian islands with gold and spices. Instead, he landed in the Bahamas and became the first European to explore the Americas since the Vikings landed in Greenland and Newfoundland about 500 years earlier. Not only does the United States celebrate the day, but many Latin American countries observe it as "Día de la Raza," Spain observes it as "Día de la Hispanidad," and various other countries celebrate the day as well.
In the United States, Columbus' voyage has been celebrated since colonial times. In 1792 events were held in New York City to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Columbus' landing. Italian Americans have often celebrated Columbus Day by celebrating Italian heritage, and an event of this kind was first held in New York City in 1866. In 1892 President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed a general holiday for the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival, calling for public demonstrations and exercises in schools and other places of assembly. It was this proclamation that inspired the creation of the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1893 the World's Fair in Chicago celebrated the 400th anniversary of the landing of Columbus and was given the name the Columbian Exposition. Also in this year, the first US commemorative postage stamps were issued, commemorating Columbus and the Exposition.
After lobbying from an Italian in Denver, Colorado became the first state to officially celebrate Columbus Day after a proclamation was issued by their governor in 1905, and in 1907 it became a statutory holiday in the state. After lobbying from the Knights of Columbus, Congress passed a resolution in 1934, and in 1937 Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a proclamation designating October 12 as Columbus Day. He called for the day to be observed "in schools or churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies expressive of the public sentiment befitting the anniversary of the discovery of America." In 1970 the date of the holiday was changed and began being observed on the second Monday of October beginning in 1971.
How to Observe Columbus Day
The day is celebrated in many different ways—from large scale parades to alternative observances to non-observance—in different places and by different groups of people. It is up to you to observe the day as you most see fit. Banks and the U.S. Post Office, as well as many other federal and state agencies and offices, close on the day. New York City has the largest parade, and San Francisco has the country's oldest continuous celebration. In some places where the focus is on Italian American heritage, there are parades, and street fairs with costumes, music, and food.
Five U.S. states—Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, South Dakota, and Vermont—don't recognize the day, although alternative observances take place in Hawaii, South Dakota, and Vermont. Hawaii celebrates Discoverer's Day, commemorating the Polynesian discoverers of the island. South Dakota celebrates the day as Native American Day. Vermont started observing the day as Indigenous Peoples' Day in 2016 after a gubernatorial proclamation, which must be issued on a yearly basis or be made permanent by the legislature.
Various communities across the United States, such as Berkeley, California, celebrate the day as Indigenous Peoples' Day. These alternative observances are rooted in opposition to the treatment of Indigenous people at the hands of Europeans following Columbus' expeditions, and in opposition to the character of Columbus himself, who enslaved some natives and sent them back to Spain. Some cities and towns that celebrate the day by honoring Indigenous people have activities such as pow-wows, traditional dance, and lessons about Indigenous people.
Whether you wish to celebrate Columbus' discovery of the new world, or the culture of Indigenous people, check with your community to see what events are being held. You could also celebrate the day on your own by reading a book about Columbus. If you wish to read a book that would be more appropriate as an observer of Indigenous Peoples' Day, you could read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, or History the Indies by Bartolomé de las Casas.