Why I celebrate Columbus Day

America has always been a beacon for those brave enough to venture to her shores. Although, what they find might not always live up to their fantasies. Such was the case in the late 1800s, with wave after wave of Italian immigrants landing on the shores of America. The Italians brought with them their food, language and religion. However,  early Americans regarded all these things with suspicion. For the Italians, everything from their complexions to their faith was regarded as anti-American and potentially dangerous to the American way of life. Italians, along with new arrivals, were the victims of targeted crimes, lynchings and discrimination. The condition of Italian immigrants was so dire that, in 1882, an Irish-Catholic priest sought to create a fraternal Catholic social order to help alleviate his immigrant congregation’s suffering. Such arrangements were common, but the name? That was unique. 

Father Michael J. McGivney did not choose the name of a saint for his new order; he chose Christopher Columbus. This was no accident. Father McGivney searched American history for a man who could combine what it meant to be an American with what it meant to be an Italian. He was looking for a bridge — one he found in a Genoese sailor who discovered the New World. A man who would become a legend for American youth … an Italian legend. 

As the Knights of Columbus grew, they lobbied state and local governments to celebrate their Columbus. Then, in 1934, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared Columbus Day a federal holiday. It was nothing short of vindication for all those who fought against a great many nativists, America. For many people of my grandparents’ and great grandparents’ generations, as well as xenophobes and Klansmen who viewed the celebration of Columbus as a Romish intrusion on many members of my family who are a part of the Knights of Columbus, Columbus Day is the day that the U.S. government recognized the contributions that Italian immigrants have made to the development of this country. It is the day that their religion and ancestry were officially congratulated by a government that, for many decades, viewed them with hostility.

I would never argue that we should whitewash history. There are valid concerns raised against Christopher Columbus the individual with regard to his treatment of the indigenous peoples of America, hence the creation of Indigenous People’s Day, observed the same day as Columbus Day. So we should teach people everything about Columbus, but we should also extend the same courtesy to Columbus Day — a day that would not have happened without immigrants tirelessly petitioning their government for recognition. A day that is commemorated by monuments funded by the day laborer and seamstress donating their pennies to the cause. A day that is not so much about a man as it is about a people finally being welcomed home. A day that we should celebrate the great many number of immigrants who have continued to come to this country for a better life.