This Monday, some folks will have a day off to commemorate Columbus Day and some won’t. So what is the legal basis for the holiday and is it truly a national holiday?
Officially, Columbus Day is recognized as one of 10 official federal holidays, by statute. But the United States, unlike other countries, doesn’t have “national holidays” that must be observed by all people due to a mandate from Congress, the President, or a national ruling body or power.
A federal holiday is a day off with pay for people who work for the federal government in what are classified as non-essential positions. At first, these holidays were restricted to federal employees in the District of Columbia, and the holidays were later expanded to federal employees outside of the federal districts.
Many states have chosen to honor some of the federal holidays, and in the long run, it is the states, and not the federal government, that control the observance of the holidays within their borders.
This point did come up in 1938 when Congress debated making Armistice Day (which is now Veterans Day) a federal holiday. During Senate debates, Senator Alben Barkley stated that Congress “didn’t have the power to fix a national holiday within the individual states” and that Congress enacted federal holidays to catch up to states.
In reality, all 50 states recognize eight federal holidays in various ways: New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Congress started listing federal holidays after the Civil War. In June 1870, Congress named four holidays for federal employees in the District of Columbia: New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. With the next two decades, Washington’s Birthday, Decoration (or Memorial) Day and Labor Day were added to the list. And then Armistice Day came in 1938.
The last two federal holidays nationwide were late additions. The holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became a reality during the Reagan administration after a 15-year effort by supporters. (Inauguration Day is also a federal holiday for federal employees in the District of Columbia area every four years.)
The Columbus Day holiday became a legal federal holiday in a much different manner. President Benjamin Harrison had issued a Columbus Day proclamation in 1892 on the 400th anniversary of the Columbus voyage. President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress also made proclamations about Columbus Day. But it took the controversial Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 for Columbus Day to become an official federal holiday.
Among the reasons cited for the Columbus Day federal holiday was that it was being observed in 40 states at the time. Congress also believed the holiday would mark the contribution of immigrants to the United States. The act moved Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day and the new Columbus Day holiday to Mondays. (Before then, October 12 was the day usually earmarked for Columbus Day.)
Within several years, Veterans Day was taken off the list of holidays moved to Mondays by Congress.
Since then, Columbus Day has had its share of controversy, because of a re-evaluation of Columbus and falling support from states who don’t want to close up business to mark the federal holiday.
According to the Council of State Governments’ list of state-observed holidays, just 23 states and the District of Columbia now observe Columbus Day. Tennessee actually observes the holiday on the day after Thanksgiving.
As for the future of Columbus Day, it has strong support from Italian-American groups, and it would be difficult to take away a paid holiday from federal employees. But more local and state governments could be expected to broaden the holiday, or remove Columbus from it, if current trends continue.
Historical Stories on Constitution Daily