Monday, October 10, 2005

Columbus Day and Thanksgiving.

The second Monday in October is a public holiday in both Canada and the United States, albeit for very different reasons. In the United States, Columbus Day recalls the eponymous explorer's arrival in the Americas and also serves as a de facto celebration of Italian-American culture and history. Canada's Thanksgiving Day goes back to 1872, when a special holiday was proclaimed to celebrate future King Edward VII's recovery from a near-fatal case of typhoid fever. Despite its origins, for most of its history Canadian Thanksgiving has been observed as a fall harvest festival much like his American counterpart.

For numerous reasons, Columbus Day was a much bigger deal when I was a kid than it is now. At my elementary school, we were taught the traditional narrative about the circumstances of Columbus' voyage and his 'discovery' of the New World, and we were treated to enthusiastic in-school celebrations of the holiday (held in advance of the actual date, because we didn't have to go to school on Columbus Day). The 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage occasioned a lot of controversy which seems to have ultimately resulted in a general downplaying of the holiday. If memory serves, I believe I continued to get the day off on Columbus Day through my graduation from high school. However, I've had a much more mixed experience at the tertiary level - some of the universities I've attended cancel all classes on Columbus Day, and some do not. Given the way public perceptions of Columbus Day have changed over the past decade, I'd be interested to know how much awareness students of my sister's age have of the holiday. Presumably they weren't taught the traditional history of Columbus Day that I got in elementary school, but I'm not quite sure what they got instead.

I wish I could say more about Canadian Thanksgiving, but my personal experience of the holiday is quite limited. When I was leaving the Windsor Refugee Office at the end of the workday last Wednesday, one of my coworkers offered offered an instictive "Happy Thanksgiving!" as I headed out the door. This reminded me that the holiday was forthcoming, and it also reminded me that as an American I had insufficient awareness of that fact. This year I've at least partially redressed the imbalance by educating myself better about the meaning of the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday. In the future, maybe I'll be able to do more. AMDG.


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