Tonight I was walking to my car after work when I passed an obviously puzzled woman. She asked me if I could help her, because she had put $1.50 into a parking meter but no time had registered. I looked at the meter and pointed out that the parking was free on federal holidays. She looked mystified until I mentioned that today is Columbus Day. And this is in Columbus, Ohio, mind you.
Columbus Day is the forgotten holiday. Only government workers and bank employees pay attention to it, because they get the day off. For everyone else, it’s a work day — but a weird, Twilight Zone-type work day where everything is a bit strange, from the lack of morning traffic to free parking. It’s a holiday that doesn’t seem to be celebrated in most places.
Why is this so? Columbus used to be viewed as a crucial figure in the history of America. He was credited with discovering the continent and was seen as a figure of enlightenment, a force for science and reason in an age of flat-earthers who didn’t want to sail off the map because “here there be dragons.” In those days, every school student learned about Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492.
But then Columbus’ reputation changed, as people focused on his brutal treatment of the natives he encountered in the New World. And the notion that Columbus proved the world was round has been discredited. A posting today in the Washington Post blog is a good indication of the greatly diminished, modern view of Columbus. And now people are questioning whether Columbus was the first traveler to find the New World, and whether Norsemen or even Chinese explorers beat him to it.
That’s why Columbus Day is a holiday that really doesn’t feel like a holiday. It’s almost as if people are mildly embarrassed by it.