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Monday, October 12, 2009

Is Columbus Day Sailing Off the Calendar? Parades Get Dumped, the Holiday Renamed; Brown's 'Fall Weekend'

Wall Street Journal Online
October 10, 2009

Arrivederci, Columbus Day.

The tradition of honoring Christopher Columbus for sailing the ocean blue in 1492 is facing rougher seas than the NiƱa, Pinta and Santa Maria.

Philadelphia's annual Columbus Day parade has been canceled. Brown University this year renamed the holiday "Fall Weekend" following a campaign by a Native American student group opposed to celebrating an explorer who helped enslave some of the people he "discovered."

And while the Italian adventurer is generally thought to have arrived in the New World on Oct. 12, 517 years ago on Monday, his holiday is getting bounced all over the calendar. Tennessee routinely celebrates it the Friday after Thanksgiving to give people an extra-long weekend.

"You can celebrate the hell out of it if you get it the day after Thanksgiving -- it gives you four days off," says former Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter.

In California, Columbus Day is one of two unpaid holidays getting blown away by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as part of a budget-cut proposal. In Washington, D.C., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid canceled this year's weeklong Columbus Day recess so the senators can buckle down on health care. (They still get Monday off, though.)

Another obstacle: Columbus Day hasn't transcended its original purpose, as some other holidays have. Sure, Columbus Day celebrates one of the world's great explorers. But Memorial Day and Labor Day also do double duty as summer's official bookends, whereas Columbus Day is stuck in mid-October, halfway between summertime and Christmas. And many Americans apparently prefer more days off around Christmas.

So some employers have turned to "holiday swapping." In Calimesa, Calif., the city council recently voted to swap two holidays -- Columbus Day, and a day honoring labor organizer Cesar Chavez -- for one floating holiday and day off on New Year's Eve.

Mayor Jim Hyatt says the swap is partly a reward to give workers more flexible use of their time off. "Nothing against Columbus Day," he says.

In Wilmette, Ill., teachers and staff are working this Columbus Day, but they get a make-up day off on Dec. 23. Ray Lechner, superintendent of Wilmette District 39, says the reality is that Columbus Day is a low holiday priority. "We would not mess with religious holidays," he says.

Columbus Day itself was created during a holiday switcheroo. Back in 1968, Congress passed the Monday Holiday Law, which not only established Columbus Day on the second Monday of October, but also moved three other federal holidays -- Memorial Day, Veteran's Day and Washington's Birthday (a.k.a Presidents' Day) -- so that they always fell on Mondays, too. And the golden age of three-day weekends was born.

The fact that this year's holiday falls on the actual date that Columbus is believed to have landed is mere coincidence. It won't happen again until 2015, assuming the holiday exists.

A spokesman for the Knights of Columbus, the fraternal society founded in 1882 with the explorer's name, said: "So far as we're concerned, it's quite obviously an appropriate holiday."

Columbus Day used to be a big deal in Columbus, Ohio. But it has been 11 years since the city had an official parade for its namesake, in part because of the controversy swirling around Columbus. There were fireworks and a beauty contest.

"It was the biggest parade in town," says Joseph Contino, a local who flies tanker jets for the national guard and is trying to refuel the idea of celebrating the big day with a big parade.

The city isn't helping, Mr. Contino says. "Their reaction is as if it was the Ku Klux Klan."

A city official says that's not right. "The mayor thinks a parade is a great idea and thinks that the Italian community should take the lead on that," says Dan Williamson, a spokesman for Mayor Michael B. Coleman.

"It would be stupid to pretend there is no controversy around Christopher Columbus," he adds. But the mayor of Columbus isn't taking sides.

The holiday isn't under threat everywhere. New York City's longtime Columbus Day parade will still be marching up Fifth Avenue this year, as it has since 1929. The bond market takes the day off, too.

But 22 states don't give their employees the day off, according to the Council of State Governments. And in other places, Columbus Day is under attack. "We're going after state governments to drop this holiday for whatever reason they come up with," said Mike Graham, founder of United Native America, a group fighting for a federal holiday honoring Native Americans.

His group's agenda: Rename Columbus Day "Italian Heritage Day" and put it somewhere else on the calendar, then claim the second Monday in October as "Native American Day." South Dakota already calls it that.

Other organizations want to rename the day "Indigenous Peoples' Day," as several California cities, including Berkeley, have done.

Columbus's defenders aren't prepared to watch their hero's holiday sail off the edge of the earth. They say he should be celebrated for risking his life to explore the world and for forging modern ties between Europe and the Americas.

His supporters acknowledge Columbus took slaves back to Spain and opened the door to conquistadors who killed Native Americans. But much of the criticism is built on "judging a 16th century man by 21st century standards," says Dona De Sanctis of the Order Sons of Italy in America, a group of half a million Italian-Americans that tries to defend Columbus' legacy.

At Brown University, the rename-the-holiday activists "stressed this was against Columbus, but not Italian-Americans," says Reiko Koyama, a junior who led the effort to persuade the school to change the name to "Fall Weekend." Brown happens to be in Rhode Island, a state with the largest proportion of Italian-Americans in the U.S.

Ground zero of the Columbus battle has been Colorado, home to the nation's first official Columbus holiday about a century ago. Columbus Day parades in Denver have faced acrimonious protests for much of the past decade. Marchers have been on the receiving end of dismembered dolls and fake blood strewn across the parade route. Dozens of protesters have been arrested over the years.

This year, the attacks took a new twist: A prankster sent an email to local media -- purporting to be from parade organizers -- saying the event had been canceled.

"I consider it much more than a hoax. This is a personal attack on me," says Richard SaBell, president of the Denver Columbus Day Parade Committee. "As in years past, we are undeterred. The parade will not be stopped."

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