Is today a holiday?
“Who are your heroes?”
This is one question that I’ve never been able to answer comfortably, whether asked years ago by a college admissions officer or recently by a documentary filmmaker. The problem with picking a public or private hero these days is that everyone comes as a package – and history is all too eager to reveal the rotten bits, from Thomas Jefferson’s ownership of slaves to Coco Chanel’s liaison with a Nazi officer. Sure, it’s possible to choose a fictional character or someone so far obscured by the mists of time and legend that any tragic flaws have disappeared. That seems a bit too easy, though, and it certainly doesn’t speak to previously anointed communal heroes who have lost their luster.
Take Columbus Day, a federal holiday in such disrepute among the chattering classes that none of the 3 newspapers that appeared outside my door this morning even mentioned it. (One of Saturday’s papers did note in passing that today would be a “partial holiday,” with the bond market closed but the stock market open.) Can we celebrate a guy who took a bold navigational risk — but then sanctioned the enslavement and/or massacre of those he encountered? Like Chief Justice John Marshall, we’re embarrassed to acknowledge the events following the “discovery” of America but unwilling or unable to disown the intervening centuries.
Were it not for a cultural gloss on the significance of Columbus Day, not to mention the desire for a federal holiday between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, Cristoforo Colombo might have faded to the same obscurity as many of his fellow explorers. Italian-American immigrants starting in the mid-nineteenth-century, however, saw an opportunity to legitimize their presence by adopting as one of their own a predecessor on the same journey, a man who was already recognized by mainstream Americans. Never mind that “Italy” didn’t exist in 1492, or that Columbus sailed under the Spanish flag. Columbus Day became less about the historical figure and more about ethnic pride, and woe to the urban politician who failed to march in the local parade.
Fast-forward to 2008, and Columbus Day is also el Dia de la Raza, among other designations; it is a day not only of parades, but also of protests. The clever p.r. move of the nineteenth century is now met with silence by much of the media, though tomorrow’s papers will surely include a red, white, and green photograph or two. Would that my vowel-ended forebears had chosen to rally around a historically vague hero like Saint Patrick and advocate nothing more polarizing than the excessive consumption of green beer. Still, the federal government has enshrined Columbus and his day as a celebration of both his voyages and of Italian-American culture – so whether or not you’re willing to leave the gun, you may as well take the cannoli.
Deconsecrating a civil holiday is a tricky business, even if the day is observed primarily through used-car sales and out-of-step marching bands. As Tyson Foods learned recently when it agreed to replace Labor Day with Eid al-Fitr as a paid day off at a Tennessee facility, holidays are a cultural battleground. While Columbus Day may eventually transform into something more inclusive, or be combined with another observance like the joining of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays to form Presidents Day, many of us do in fact have a federally sanctioned day off. One that, media silence notwithstanding, requires at least a moment of reflection.