Who knew that a paid day off from work could be so divisive?
The Seattle City Council’s unanimous vote last week to rename Columbus Day “Indigenous People’s Day” had Native American activists cheering and Italian heritage groups up in arms.
Depending on whom you asked, the name change was either a long-overdue recognition that a genocidal, directionally challenged sailor doesn’t really warrant a postal holiday, or an affront to Italian Americans and the American tradition of discovery.
“We say today, ‘Basta!’ We say, ‘Enough.’ We say, ‘No more discrimination.’ Not now and not here,” Seattle activist Ralph Fascitelli, who is coordinating an effort to reverse the name change, said at a news conference Thursday.
But Seattle isn’t the first jurisdiction to dismiss the federal holiday. South Dakota has been calling it “Native American Day” since 1990, while in Alaska and Oregon, the second Monday in October is recognized as . . . the second Monday in October.
In fact, opposition to Columbus Day goes back to its inception. It was first given national prominence by way of an 1892 declaration from President Benjamin Harrison in the wake of the high-profile lynching of 11 Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans, and it was named a federal holiday by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 as a way of countering widespread anti-Italian immigrant sentiment. (Controversially, one of Roosevelt’s predecessors, Calvin Coolidge, had declared that he believed Norse explorer Leif Erikson was the first European to discover America. Erikson also has a day devoted to him — Oct. 9 — but government employees are required to show up for work that day.)
The Columbus Day holiday was formally legalized by Congress in 1968, but even then states and private businesses weren’t required to recognize it, and many didn’t. As of this year, only 23 states and the District grant their employees the day off.
Considering how difficult it is to create a federal holiday — just four have been added to the calendar in the past 100 years — perhaps it’s not surprising that Italian Americans are so reluctant to see theirs changed. But the challenge of getting the government to declare a day off (without the benefit of a couple of inches of snow, at any rate) hasn’t dissuaded people from trying.
Thousands of people sign petitions on the White House’s “We the People” site each year asking for new celebrations to be added to the federal calendar. They run the gamut from totally serious (a concerted effort to have federal election days declared mandatory holidays) to almost-as-serious-but-significantly-less-likely, such as this spring’s Budweiser-endorsed petition to create a national day off for major-league baseball’s Opening Day.
Just like Columbus Day, these holiday proposals revolve as much around politics as anything else: the politics of identity, the politics of voting, the politics of sports affiliation. They’re about recognition. They’re about honor.
A petition to establish the Lunar New Year as a federal holiday stated that the designation would lend the holiday “the same importance and weight” as other cultural days. And the most recent incarnation of the ongoing petition to put an end to Columbus Day argues that doing so would “acknowledge [the United States’] colonial past.”
Football fans want in on the commemorative action, too. A “We the People” petition from January 2013 called on the president to close offices and schools on the Monday after the Super Bowl, thus honoring “the most popular event in modern American culture.”
“I make jokes about, ‘Oh, another mattress sale, it must be Presidents’ Day.’ But, in fact, these holidays do generate stories and get some people thinking about presidents or Columbus or whatever the case may be,” said Brian Balogh, who teaches 20th-century political history at the University of Virginia. “I understand why people fight hard to have certain days remembered.”
Still, it’s unlikely that we’ll be skipping work on Super Bowl Monday anytime soon.
A Congressional Research Service report found that federal holidays cost taxpayers about $200 million per day (and that was back in 1999). This was part of the argument against the establishment of a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which came into effect in 1983 only after Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) introduced it during every session of Congress for the better part of 15 years.
What holidays do or don’t get honored with bank closures and public-school vacations often has more to do with politics and PR campaigns than philosophy. Labor Day was the product of an election-year compromise intended to appease angry unions in the wake of President Grover Cleveland’s deployment of troops during the violent suppression of the Pullman rail workers strike of 1894. And the thing that finally put Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on the calendar? Stevie Wonder’s 1981 single “Happy Birthday,” which was released two years before the holiday was signed into law.
Convenience is a factor as well: In the same act that formalized Columbus Day as a federal holiday, Congress moved three others — Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day and Veterans Day — to Mondays rather than their particular anniversaries; apparently this was more cost-effective than granting a day off in the middle of the week. (Moving the official Washington’s Birthday celebration to the third Monday of February as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act also allowed about a dozen states to dub the occasion Presidents’ Day and combine it with Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, which falls in the same month. While it was observed in many states, Lincoln’s Birthday was never a federal holiday.)
Besides, all those petitioners for Lunar New Year and Opening Day are wasting their ink lobbying the White House. Only Congress has the power to declare a federal holiday.
Instead, Balogh says, the best way to guarantee a nationwide day off for something is to make it popular at the state level first. Both Columbus Day and King’s birthday were celebrated in more than 20 states before Congress decided to make it official.
And if all else fails? Get Stevie Wonder to write a song about it. Hey, it worked once before.