The case for Columbus Day

Dave Ghose

Why our city should embrace the country's most maligned holiday

On Oct. 10, Columbus will celebrate our city's namesake-or at least that's the idea. For most of us, the annual remembrance of Christopher Columbus' voyage will come and go without fanfare. My annual Columbus Day tradition, for instance, is to call some local government agency and then swear into the telephone when I'm surprised to discover the office is closed.

Columbus Day is the most embattled, the most maligned and the most ignored of the 10 official U.S. holidays. With our abundance of government jobs in Central Ohio-more than 50,000 state, county, federal and city of Columbus workers-plenty of folks get a day off on the second Monday of October every year. So what do these lucky people do with this precious benefit? Not much, according to my extremely unscientific survey of people I know who've worked for the government. Says a county worker: "I don't do anything to celebrate Columbus." Says an ex-City Hall official: "I loved Columbus Day because it was the only holiday I got off that my kids didn't. Now that you ask me, though, I can't remember what I ever did." The worst response of all came from a federal employee, who says he intends to work on the holiday this year. "But I will definitely come in late and sleep in."

Can't we do better than that? Besides Christmas, Michigan, you're not going to find many other places that share a name with a national holiday. In Central Ohio, Columbus Day should be more than an opportunity to frolic without the kids. Columbus Day should be our day-a one-of-kind citywide party that wows outsiders and makes insiders feel like members of a secret club. We should own it, unapologetically. To do that, we need to create our own event worthy of celebration.

Columbus Day-born in Colorado more than a century ago-grew out of the excitement that surrounded the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' 1492 voyage to the Americas. Backed by the Knights of Columbus, the idea spread, with 35 states adopting it as a holiday by 1922 and the federal government taking it nationwide 12 years later.

Even though our Italian heritage pales by comparison to other places, we in Columbus, Ohio, seem almost duty-bound to make a big deal about the holiday given our status as the nation's largest city named after the explorer. And we used to. At its peak, Columbus Day was one of the most celebrated events in Central Ohio. It included a street fair, a Downtown parade and a beauty pageant featuring young women from cities throughout the country named after Columbus.

Old Dispatch photos capture the festivities: fireworks exploding over the Downtown sky, old men in fezzes and high school marching bands parading down Broad Street, a Ferris wheel on Civic Center Drive, Miss Columbus U.S.A. 1978 (Pamela Kay Lamport of Columbus, Mississippi) atop a float with her court of runners-up in all their feathered-hair glory. On Columbus Day in 1955, more than 100,000 people gathered at City Hall to witness the unveiling of the three-ton, 20-foot-tall, bronze statue of Christopher Columbus that remains there to this day.

But as one anniversary birthed the holiday, another one spelled its doom a century later. The 1992 quincentennial celebration-which featured a $200,000 Columbus Day parade-was cause for a protest. Critics pointed to Columbus' brutal treatment of indigenous New World people.

The hostility weakened support for the holiday across the country. Celebrations were canceled, days off eliminated, the name changed in some places ("Indigenous Peoples Day," "Fall Weekend," "Discoverers' Day"). Even in its biggest municipal namesake, Columbus Day suffered. After several years of attracting protests, our parade ended in 1999. It returned in 2006 as a much smaller affair, one that occurred the day before Columbus Day with a route through the Short North. But if you're looking for something to do on the actual holiday, you're pretty much limited to a 30-minute wreath-laying ceremony at City Hall that attracts a smattering of officiants and bored onlookers. "When a place called Columbus stops celebrating Columbus Day, it's clear the holiday is out of favor," a 2011 Slate article declared.

In 2004, the city tried to rebrand Columbus Day weekend as "Experience Columbus Days," an opportunity to visit attractions such as COSI, the Columbus Museum of Art and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for free or at reduced rates. The program attempted to shift the focus from the controversial explorer to the city itself, offering a "new definition" of Columbus Day, as Mayor Mike Coleman said at the time.

Actually, it was an old definition. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison called for a nationwide celebration to honor the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage. The proclamation, which set the stage for the creation of the holiday, urged the public to honor "the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life." Christopher Columbus was the starting point but not the end. The holiday was supposed to be about us-all of us-including Native Americans and immigrants who were just beginning to come to this country in large numbers in the late 19th century. At its birth, Columbus Day was a progressive idea that countered nativist fervor-the year before Harrison's proclamation, 11 Sicilian immigrants were killed in the largest mass lynching in U.S. history-and the holiday's biggest opponents were those who objected to its association with Catholicism and immigration.

This version of Columbus Day is especially relevant to our modern, increasingly diverse city. These days, we're a city of transplants like me and our journeys-and what we discovered in our new home-are worth celebrating, especially on a holiday that bears our city's name.

Eventually, the "Experience Columbus Days" program fizzled. The idea had run its course, says the convention bureau's spokeswoman Beth Ervin. "We weren't really getting the participation," she says. I think there might have been another problem: The idea was too small. Though its founders were on the right track, they needed something more dramatic than a discount day at the zoo. If we really want to reinvent the holiday and create a rallying point for the community, then we need to go bigger. Luckily, we don't have to look far for inspiration.

For one day in April-usually the first Monday of the month-the city of Cincinnati shuts down (unofficially) to celebrate the first home game of the Cincinnati Reds. There's a big parade. There's a block party in the neighborhood next to the stadium. TV stations broadcast the festivities live, starting in the morning. Many businesses close for the day, while those that stay open look the other way as their employees call in sick. It's also fairly common for parents to pull their kids out of school (if they're not already on spring break). "No one goes to work," says Michael Schuster, a Cincinnati architect who led a petition drive that resulted in the city declaring Opening Day an "official ceremonial holiday" in 2011. "It's just been like that forever … Nothing gets done on Opening Day."

Cincinnati is one of the few places in the country with a local holiday. And I can't imagine a better vehicle for building civic pride. It's hard not to feel special when your community encourages you to play hooky to watch a baseball game on a Monday and take part in a tradition that dates back nearly 150 years (the Reds are the oldest team in Major League Baseball).

Columbus Day could be our Opening Day, our Mardi Gras, our Patriots' Day. While the rest of the country gives up on Columbus Day, we could be the one place that still celebrates it (and goes big). We don't even have to create the excuse for a day off, the way Cincinnati did. It's already in place, with thousands of people just waiting for us to give them something to do.

So what should our new Columbus Day look like? A bigger, better parade would be nice, maybe a festival along the riverfront, too. As I see it, there are two essential elements. One, we should return to the original ideal of Columbus Day and celebrate our diversity, the many hues and views that have found a home in Columbus: college students, LGBT folks, immigrants (from Italians to Africans), soccer moms, NASCAR dads, Short North hipsters, suburban squares, even Michigan fans (OK, not that diverse). Two, we should culminate the day with a big central event to draw the masses, like the first baseball game of the year in Cincinnati or the Boston Marathon on Patriots' Days in Massachusetts.

Obviously, just one thing has that kind of appeal in Columbus. Why couldn't the Buckeyes play a night game at the 'Shoe on Columbus Day, something the TV networks would probably love (though the game would have to go up against Monday Night Football)? A college football game on a Monday is not unheard of. Ohio State set a precedent already when it beat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, last year in the season opener on Labor Day.

I admit my plan is ambitious. "You've got a pretty big to-do," says Deb Roberts, the director of the current Columbus Day Italian Parade. I encountered even more skepticism when I pitched the idea to Jerry Emig, the spokesman for Ohio State football. He says a Monday game in October would be a scheduling nightmare. "Logistically, it probably couldn't happen," he says.

Emig seems like a nice, decent guy, but that's defeatist. If we didn't chase pie-in-the-sky dreams, then Columbus never would have become the great city that it is today. In fact, it wouldn't even be called Columbus. In 1812, Joseph Foos, an early Franklinton settler and a great admirer of Christopher Columbus, refused to let his fellow members of the Ohio General Assembly call the new state capital "Ohio City," the original choice. "After using the tried-and-true method of persuasion accompanied by liberal amounts of strong drink, Foos convinced a majority of the assembly to name the town Columbus," wrote local historian Ed Lentz in a 2011 article.

Hmm. Maybe I'll ask Emig if he'd like to talk more over a beer. Perhaps I'll invite his boss, Gene Smith, too. It worked for Foos.