In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He had three ships and left from Spain; He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain. He sailed by night; he sailed by day. He used the stars to find his way.
How many of us remember that little ditty? Or maybe only the first two lines? It cemented in our minds, as children, that Columbus set out and discovered America. All across the United States school children are taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. He sailed three ships, the Pinta, Niña, and the Santa Maria. We are not taught that he actually landed on an island in the Caribbean Sea. How many children think Columbus set foot on Florida or perhaps even Massachusetts? Somehow, I think, children get the Pilgrims and Columbus mixed, having him being welcomed by the American Indians.
Actually, it was Cristobal Colon, an Italian (strange how we have Anglicized most foreign names) who landed on an island in the Bahamas — thinking it was India. The fact that this new world was already inhabited by civilizations with their own rich history goes unrecognized. It is told from a European perspective, not from the view of the native people. Nor was he the first person to “discover” these islands. Although Columbus landed on one small island, he is credited with the discovery of America, and that generally is assumed, by Americans, to mean the United States, thus the resulting confusion.
Some years later, Américo Vespucci would realize, while sailing along Brazil, that he had come upon a new continent. The Americas are, of course, named for Vespucci.
But what about Leif Eriksson, a Viking, who around 1000, five hundred years before Columbus, stepped foot on Canadian soil? Is there a day honoring Lief? In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson declared October 9 to be Leif Eriksson Day. But, it is not a federal holiday. Leif needs a better PR man.
How is Columbus Day celebrated in the other countries of North, Central, and South America? In Mexico it is a national holiday called Dia de la Raza, or Day of the Race. Not race as in foot race, but a day when the indigenous people come to celebrate themselves, their community and their heritage. Canada has no holiday to recognize Columbus.
Columbus Day is celebrated on October 12. The day is generally recognized in the United States by big red tag sales and by Italian-Americans proud of their heritage. And because it is a federal holiday, banks and post offices are closed. There are no family picnics or outings as is typical of other holidays. Even though Columbus Day is a holiday, our understanding of its history remains clouded.