Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 24, 2021

American holidays do actually have meaning

By ARIELLA SHUA | October 17, 2019


Growing up I always knew the second Monday of October as Columbus Day.

Or, at least, that’s what I would say if you asked me what American holiday takes place in early October. Probably.

I remember learning about Christopher Columbus throughout elementary school. The names of his three ships are somewhere in my mind, ready for a trivia question that asks to state them. The year of his arrival — 1492 — will always be accompanied by the little song we learned about his voyage. For a few minutes each fall, we’d remember the (very much abridged) history of our country.

It was not until middle school, or perhaps even later, that my teachers began educating our classes about the darker qualities of Columbus. And by that point, any mention of Columbus Day as a holiday had faded to the background.

I always assumed that my school, a religious institution with enough holidays of its own to teach about, was an exception to the norm. Secular schools would understand the importance behind American holidays and teach the history behind them.

Since arriving at college, however, I realized that I was wrong. I came to find that although other schools did emphasize the history and importance behind federal holidays, no one seems to have actually learned much from the lessons. Columbus Day came and went on Monday, Oct. 14. The only people who seem to actively care about the holiday are those who instead celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The alternate holiday is a response to the traditional Columbus Day narrative that instead celebrates Native American history and culture.

It wasn’t until I came to Hopkins that I realized Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a holiday as well, one that is becoming increasingly prevalent across the United States. Last year, the University hosted the first on-campus celebration with a pow wow and speaker. This year, the event expanded, following nationwide trends to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day over Columbus Day. Over 130 cities and several states now officially celebrate the former instead of the latter. Washington, D.C. held a celebration for the first time, suggesting that the celebration of indigenous history will become more mainstream.

This is an excellent trend for America. Put simply, we don’t need to honor a man who brought violence to the existing communities here. There is a huge difference between remembering important history and actually making a federal holiday devoted to that history. This is especially true in the case of Columbus Day, which whitewashes the disgusting way that the namesake treated the people native to this land.

But what about other federal holidays? Columbus Day is just one of the 10. All the others are familiar to those who grew up in America: Christmas, New Year’s Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day and more. Most are routinely taught about in elementary school and then ignored by the public afterwards.

But this doesn’t have to be the norm. America can, and should, use the transition from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day as an example. Rather than leave the importance of the holidays in the past, we should endeavor to make them modern and applicable.

Martin Luther King (MLK) Day already tries to stay fresh and relevant. Every year since 1994, the day has also been known as MLK Day of Service, one of only two government-designated national service days. This is a great idea and one that should be promoted on a smaller community level as well as on a national scale. Institutions like Hopkins should take advantage of this holiday and promote it — don’t just give the day off for Intersession classes, but provide volunteer opportunities on this day.

In addition, we could use MLK Day as an opportunity to continue conversations about racial divides in America. As we know all too well, there is still much to debate and change. Hopkins can invite speakers to present on the subject, or professors can host panel discussions using MLK Day as a starting point.

Veterans Day and Memorial Day should also receive a second look. While Veterans Day is regarded as more serious and Memorial Day as a fun day for barbecues, neither is truly given the public attention that it deserves. More should be done on a national level to commemorate those who fell defending our country. In Israel, for example, a siren is played on Memorial Day for one minute. Every person stops what they are doing and stands in respect until the siren fades. The United States does not need to adapt the same custom, but it should emphasize the importance of the day to all. We should not have to catch the mention of the holiday on the news to remember it. 

In making federal holidays relevant, it is also worth revisiting the idea of Christmas Day as a holiday. The United States is not a Christian nation, and I never understood why a Christian holiday should be one of just the few federally recognized holidays.

As an article in the New York Times explains, the reason behind Christmas as an American holiday is simply convenience. A majority of Americans were Christian when the day was proposed as a federal holiday in 1870. It is easier to justify giving the day off if the day is already significant.

Given that over 70 percent of Americans today are Christian, it makes sense to keep the holiday in place. But perhaps there is a way to not exclude all non-Christian Americans from a federal holiday. Portrayals of Christmas across mainstream media aim to make the celebration focused on family and community, rather than any one religion. This inclusiveness is encouraging — it shows that the holiday season can be for all Americans.

I still remember the song about Columbus in 1492 sailing the ocean blue. And I now have opportunities to learn about indigenous history on future Mondays in October. I just hope that the United States as a country will follow the idea behind Indigneous Peoples’ Day. There is a reason that these American holidays were founded in the first place. The creators of these holidays knew that there was value in commemorating our past as a country and in honoring those who deserve the utmost respect. We must bring their messages to the present day by making them relevant to all Americans.

Maybe that way, we will actually remember American holidays as more than just an afterthought.

Ariella Shua is a junior studying Writing Seminars from Livingston, New Jersey. She is the Opinions Editor.

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