Columbus Day is one of those “holidays” that really isn’t a holiday in any meaningful sense of the word. Sure, federal workers and state workers get the day off — they get every holiday off, without fail — and so do bank employees. For the rest of us working stiffs, however, Columbus Day is just another day to slog into the office and briefly wonder why that the flow of rush hour traffic is lighter than on the average work day.
And these days many people don’t care much for Christopher Columbus, either. Admiral of the Ocean Sea, persuader of Ferdinand and Isabella, intrepid explorer — forget all that stuff we learned in grade school! Now we hear that Columbus brought disease and slavery to the New World and is viewed as standing for colonialism, cultural insensitivity, and a Eurocentric vision of the world. That’s why some people insist, instead, on celebrating Indigenous People’s Day.
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.
Like other cities, Columbus gets a bit gussied up for the holidays. It’s entertaining to wander around downtown, enjoying the decorations and the energy and talent that goes into them.
At Columbus City Hall, the towering statue of Christopher Columbus — which depicts the intrepid explorer with a curiously flat top of the head — stands guard over Santa’s workshop. The little workshop includes a mail slot, where kids can drop off their wish list letters to Santa.
At the intersection of walkways at the southwest corner of the Statehouse is the Christopher Columbus Discovery Plaza, which features a rendering of the intrepid explorer, and the capital city’s namesake, atop a granite base and fountain.
The Christopher Columbus Discovery Plaza came together gradually. The hollow copper statue of Columbus was created first and initially was found on the old campus of the Pontifical College Josephinium. It was donated to the state in 1932 and erected on the Statehouse grounds at that time. In 1992, as part of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, the granite base and fountain were constructed. In front of Columbus appears the statement: “The spirit of discovery has the power to change the course of human history, as demonstrated by the voyages of Christopher Columbus, whose imagination shattered the boundaries of the western world. Modern history has been shaped by one man’s courage to pursue a dream.”
Statues of Columbus all seems to look the same, with old Chris looking down on a sphere, usually with a frown on his face and some seafaring instruments nearby. The Statehouse statue is along the same lines. It doesn’t make Columbus seem like the kind of person with whom you’d like to share a long sea voyage.