This is not to diminish the significance of the 1492 landing. Though Columbus could not really discover a place where people were already living, he did discover America for exploitation by Europe. And, as Robert Frost might put it, that has made all the difference.
Columbus Day now seems to have three distinct identities: It's a tribute to Columbus and the "discovery" of America; a day of ethnic pride for Italian Americans; and an excuse for a three-day weekend when the fall foliage is ablaze.
Since America's founding, Columbus' reputation has varied wildly. He has been revered as a sort of proto-Founding Father whose portrait might be found next to George Washington's in our schoolhouses. And he has been derided as a stubborn bumbler who brought about the deaths of tens of millions.
In fairness, Columbus was an exceptional sailor and entrepreneur who was obsessed, as so many were at the time, with finding a quicker and more cost-effective route from Europe to China and India. He bumped into America because it was in the way.
So Columbus' motivation was self-interest. He did not explore to improve humanity, but he didn't do it to inflict catastrophe either.
A form of the explorer's name, Columbia, has long been used as a poetic name for America and as a feminine personification of the United States. Think of the Columbia Pictures torch lady and the patriotic tune "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean." There's a statue of Columbia atop Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park, and our nation's capital is of course the District of Columbia.
The high-water mark of Columbus' reputation probably came in 1893, when Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exposition in honor of the quadricentennial of his landing. Also at that time, Catholics were immigrating to the country in large numbers, and they were very happy to discover that a fellow Catholic was held in high esteem in Protestant America. (The Knights of Columbus organized in 1882.)
Columbus Day first became a state holiday in 1906 in Colorado, of all places. It became a federal holiday in 1937. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the legislation to honor the man and the event - and to make his Catholic constituents happy.
Since Columbus was a native of Genoa, he has been a source of pride for Italian Americans. Many would like Columbus Day to be for Italians what St. Patrick's Day is for the Irish. And they're flummoxed that Irish Americans could take two ingredients, liquor and the color green, and turn them into such a successful holiday. We should all be flummoxed.
This Irish American firmly believes that Italian Americans deserve their own day of celebration. But he also thinks it would get a lot more attention in some other month. October has Halloween, Oktoberfest, football, hayrides, and apple cider. It's all wrong for a celebration of things Mediterranean.
An Italian food and culture day would ideally be in May or perhaps September - a time of mild weather when folks could take a table and chairs into the backyard, string up some lights, serve up rustic bread with sopressa and aged provolone, and drink vino da tavola out of the little glasses. What's not to like?
In the meantime, let's make do with a handful of spiced wafers and a pint of bock as we hoist a toast to the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Cristoforo Colombo, who knew for sure that the world was round - just not how big.
Daniel Deagler lives in Bucks
County. He can be reached at email@example.com.