Most of America is at work right now, doing whatever it is Americans do now that manufacturing work has been replaced by the service sector and health-care jobs. In Washington, though, it's a day off, thanks to the 1968 decision to shut the city down in honor of Christopher Columbus.
Back then, as a Senate report on federal holidays noted in 1999, Columbus Day was far from controversial. Instead, in what now reads like a rebuttal to Donald Trump, the day was meant to "[honor] the courage and determination which enabled generation after generation of immigrants from many nations to find freedom and opportunity in America." It would be "an annual reaffirmation by the American people of their faith in the future, a declaration of willingness to face with confidence the imponderables of unknown tomorrows." It's not really that at this point.
However! The day gives us an excuse to quickly revisit the evolution of federal holidays.
We took this year's calendar and overlaid how the holidays would have looked had the laws passed in any given year been in effect. Yielding this:
1885: The first five federal holidays are enacted. New Year's Day, Christmas and Independence Day were already recognized in D.C. proper as of 1870, with Washington's Birthday added nine years later. Thanksgiving, which had been floating around since George Washington, was, too. But in 1885, they became the first five official federal holidays.
1888: Decoration Day is added. It eventually became Memorial Day.
1894: Labor Day enters the mix. The point of holidays was to "emphasize some great event or principle in the minds of the people by giving them a day of rest and recreation," the House Labor Committee figured (according to that Senate report), and so created a holiday to ensure that the "nobility of labor [would] be maintained."
1938: Congress creates Armistice Day, which then became Veterans Day after the idea of a perpetual armistice proved fleeting. It moved around a bit, but ended up on Nov. 11 in 1975.
1957: Inauguration Day was added to the calendar in years of a presidential inauguration. It only applies in the District.
1968: Congress went crazy. First, they moved a bunch of holidays to Mondays (including Veterans Day, which later got moved back). The goal here was to give people more time to celebrate -- and to reduce the number of people taking off more days when holidays fell mid-week. 1968 was also the year that gave us Columbus Day. The goal with that holiday was to give future Americans something to fight about.
1983: Speaking of things to fight about. In 1983, Congress finally formalized the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, after nearly passing it in 1979 and after being introduced in Congress after Congress. It took a bit for it to catch on.
If you're curious what may come next, Wikipedia lists a series of proposed federal holidays, including ones honoring Malcolm X, Susan B. Anthony and Cesar Chavez, who enjoys a state holiday in California. There's also a proposed Native Americans Day, which we toss out there for anyone who feels as though this particular article didn't do enough to encourage the debate over why the federal government is currently off.