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What is Columbus Day and is it Worth Celebrating?

A compass, a miniature boat, and a telescope symbolizing columbus day.

What is Columbus Day, why do we observe it, and is it even appropriate in this day and age? While most of us won’t argue with a three-day weekend in beautiful October, this American holiday becomes increasingly controversial every year. In recent months, we as a society have grown more aware of issues of race and ethnicity. In light of the tough conversations, many of us have been having, celebrating Columbus Day is considered by some people to be in poor taste. Here, I’ll explain a little more about what the holiday means and how we can reimagine it for 2020 and beyond.

Why the US Celebrates Columbus Day – Vox

What is Columbus Day, and Why Do We Celebrate it?

If you’re unfamiliar with the origins of Columbus Day, here’s a quick primer. It’s a celebration of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas in October of 1492, observed on the second Monday of October. Various countries of North and South America (and many societies and organizations within them) have marked the occasion since the late 18th century. In the U.S., it’s become a day to commemorate the achievements of both Columbus and the larger Italian-American community. President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it an official holiday in 1937, and for many, it means a day off from school and work.

The 32nd US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt signing papers in his office. He was the President who made the Columbus Day an official holiday. What is Columbus Day?
Franklin D. Roosevelt Made Columbus Day an Official Holiday in 1937 (Image Source: Flickr)

In recent years, however, a growing number of people have expressed discomfort with the idea of celebrating Columbus Day. Among their many objections are the European colonists’ appalling treatment of Native Americans and the genesis of the transatlantic slave trade. As forward thinkers committed to social justice for all people, it’s difficult to turn a blind eye to how problematic the holiday is. Is it time to ditch this tradition altogether?

Is There a Way to Celebrate a Controversial Holiday?

Because of Columbus’s abuse of the native peoples he encountered, some people now choose to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of the original holiday. In fact, it’s now an official holiday in a number of states, including Alaska, Hawai’i, Oregon, and South Dakota. Individual cities, including Los Angeles and Denver, have followed suit. In 2020, recognizing the culture and achievements of Native Americans and other indigenous peoples feels like a much more appropriate holiday celebration.

Several native americans celebrating Indigenous Peoples' Day.
Some People Choose to Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

There are some communities that will disagree with this approach to the holiday. They may have fond childhood memories associated with it. Or, they may feel proud of Columbus’s achievements as an explorer. It can be healthy to share different perspectives on controversial subjects. It’s also healthy to be understanding when people have different life experiences. With this in mind, celebrate in a way that represents your truth, but do your best not to judge others who may disagree.

Book Cover of the Native Americans State by State by Rick Sapp
You Can Spend the Day Reading More About the Culture of Local Tribes (Image Source: Amazon)

If you would prefer to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, there are many simple ways you can do it. You might spend the day reading more about the culture of a local tribe or shopping at Native-owned businesses. It’s also a great time to consider what you can do to improve the world for all people.

Giving Back to the Community, Gratitude, and Much More

So what will you do on your day off this year? Check out some great ideas for how to spend your time. I’ve decided to focus on activities that can help make the world around us a better place.

Make it a Day to Give Back

There’s no better way to acknowledge the struggles, triumphs, and contributions of indigenous peoples than by giving back to organizations that benefit their communities. Native Hope, for example, provides everyday essentials to families and children in need in Native communities. The American Indian College Fund helps Native Americans to reach their educational goals. Or check out the National Indian Council on Aging, which helps support and care for the elderly in the American Indian and Alaska Native communities. Don’t feel bad if you don’t have a ton of cash to donate right now—every little bit helps. You might consider setting up a Facebook fundraiser and encouraging your friends and family to donate.

A woman making a donation online.
You Can Give Back to Organizations that Benefit the Native American Community (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Here are more Native American charity organizations that deserve everyone’s support. Choose one that feels meaningful to you!

Practice Gratitude

In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it’s easy to get stuck on autopilot. This year, use your day off to stop and smell the roses. Pausing to appreciate everything you have can improve your emotional wellness and ease issues like depression and anxiety. What’s more, feeling gratitude can bolster your self-esteem, strengthen your friendships, and even help you to sleep better! When you have a positive attitude, life is happier, more productive, and more rewarding.

A woman writing thank you notes on her desk while having her coffee in the morning.
You Don’t Have to Make a Grand Gesture to Express Gratitude (Image Source: Shutterstock)

You don’t have to make a grand gesture to express your gratitude for the people you love. A handwritten thank-you note, a quick phone call, or even a heartfelt text can brighten someone’s day. It could be your mom or dad, a close friend, or someone you don’t know quite as well, like a neighbor or colleague. Let that person know that you’re thinking of them and that you’re thankful for their presence in your life. You’ll be amazed at how wonderful you feel afterward!

Another way to practice thankfulness is by journaling. If you’ve never written in a gratitude journal before, now is a great time to get started. You can use journaling prompts if they inspire you, but there are no hard-and-fast rules here. The goal of the exercise is to remember and appreciate the people and things that bring joy to your life.

Gratitude is not just for Thanksgiving!

Make Time for Self-Care

Taking the time for self-care on a day you’ve dedicated to awareness of the greater good may seem counterintuitive. When you’re committed to achieving social justice and equality, doing something that’s just for you feels kind of indulgent. But think again—self-care isn’t selfish. Have you ever heard the expression “put your own oxygen mask on first”? It means that you need to take care of yourself, or you won’t be able to care for anyone else. It’s not hard to see the truth in that statement. When you’re feeling physically, mentally, or emotionally unwell, it’s more difficult to make a difference.

A beautiful african american woman reading a book by the window.
Use Your Free Time to Engage in Self-Care Practices Like Reading a Book (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Use your free time to engage in self-care practices that will help you to be the best version of yourself. That might look like taking a nap, going for a long jog, or reading a good book. Giving yourself time to relax and recharge will help you to move forward with your goals for making the world a better place.

A woman relaxing outside her home.
Make Time for Self-Care (Image Source: Shutterstock)

By now, you probably have great ideas of your own for how to spend Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Remember that even the smallest good deeds can add up to positive changes in our society. So ask yourself what you’d like to do for humankind in 2020, and know that you’re capable of it.

The rest is up to you. Enjoy your day off!