- - Thursday, October 5, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If you’re confused that Columbus Day this year is not celebrated on the date mandated by historical fact, you’re not alone. The holiday has sometimes been celebrated on the wrong day, even before Congress included Columbus Day in its Monday-holiday scheme in 1969.

And some states and entities still take no heed of Columbus Day whatsoever, with the New York Stock Exchange, for example, open as usual. But the all-time biggest controversy surrounding Columbus Day occurred in 1892 on the 400th anniversary. It was celebrated not on October 12 but on October 21, which was dubbed Discovery Day.

In New York City, Friday, October 21, was a holiday for some businesses but not for others. Lawyers transacted business as usual, but postal employees were excused after 10 a.m.

And parade routes were conspicuous for their lack of parades. New Yorkers had already done their marching on October 12. In fact, The Associated Press reported that the October 12 parade “was one of the most gorgeous ever witnessed. The streets were swarming with people. Fully 250,000 strangers witnessed the parade,” as well as an equal number from the five boroughs. On the other hand, Discovery Day in the Big Apple was as flat as the world before Columbus. “It was merely tolerated, not observed,” read one account.

But why October 21?

The New York State Court of Appeals, scheduled to meet on Discovery Day, was asked for an opinion. “We do not construe anything,” the court said. “We make no decision on the controversy, but decide not to sit on Friday. This is simply to be on the safe side.”

In Washington, D. C., many government offices, including the Supreme Court, worked on the 12th and took off on the 21st. The controller of the currency, when besieged with queries whether October 21 was really a legal holiday, refused “responsibility for deciding ” the matter.

The Alexandria Gazette evening newspaper illustrated the on-again, off-again nature of Discovery Day. “Today is a national holiday here and was generally observed as such; all the public, federal and district offices were closed, and most of the stores after the middle of the day. Hundreds of people went to Alexandria to ride on the new electric road from the city to Mt. Vernon. The bar rooms were all crowded, as is always the case on holidays here.”

Pittsburgh, however, went all-out in terms of Discovery Day, devoting two days to the celebration. Thursday, October 20, saw 30,000 school children singing the praises of the nation, with the city, according to the Pittsburgh Gazette newspaper, “virtually wrapped in the American flag and the decorations were never prettier or more profuse. Each business man seemed to be vying with his neighbor, and as a result all business houses are clothed in the nation’s colors.” As for October 21 in Pittsburgh, there was, in the headline of the Gazette, a “Monster Parade.”

In other cities the day ran the gamut from a little celebration to a bit more. In Yonkers there was a celebration conducted by schoolchildren. In Elizabeth, New Jersey, there was a two-hour parade. In Boston, there was the ringing of church and fire-alarm bells. And San Francisco made clear that Columbus didn’t leave his heart there: It was really quiet.

But why October 21?

The day was celebrated in Chicago by dedicating the Columbian Exposition or World’s Fair in honor of Columbus. But it was only a dedication because the big shebang wasn’t complete and wouldn’t open until May 1, 1893. To be sure, it was a front-page story in Midwest newspapers, with Vice President Levi Morton giving the dedication address.

“I hereby dedicate these buildings and their appurtenances,” he said, “intended by the Congress of the United States for the use of the Columbian exposition, to the world’s progress in art, in science, in agriculture, and in manufactures.”

The Grand Rapids Herald newspaper reported that at the conclusion of the speech “one-eighth of a million men and women rose to their feet and gave him a salvo of applause that he is likely to remember as long as he lives.”

Why October 21?

Because Congress took leave of its senses in 1892. It chose strict construction of dates, to wit, that when Columbus arrived in 1492, he was on the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar that didn’t become effective until 1582. So under the Julian reckoning, Columbus came on October 23. But that was a Sunday in 1892, and school kids couldn’t participate in the celebration, so Friday, October 21 was chosen.

All this brings to mind the assessment of Mark Twain (1835-1910), who was privy to all this nonsense. “Suppose you were an idiot,” wrote Twain, “and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.”

• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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