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October's Competing US Holidays

October's Competing US Holidays

"In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue."

Many American schoolchildren learn this simple rhyme to help them remember Christopher Columbus and what he is famous for doing.

For many years, people in America and several other countries have been celebrating a day that honors Columbus in early October. But there is another holiday that takes place at the same time, and it was created as a response to Columbus Day. 

Because language is connected to culture, let's learn some history behind both of these holidays, as well as some related vocabulary.

Who was Christopher Columbus?

A statue of Christoper Columbus, pointing into the distance

Columbus was an Italian explorer who sailed to the Americas in the 15th century with support from the king and queen of Spain.

However, America was not where he planned to go. The purpose of his trip was to find a quick way by boat from Western Europe to islands near China and India. His hope was to buy and trade for spices and other goods only available in that part of the world.

In the end, Columbus never reached Asia. Instead, his ships made it to the Caribbean (including the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba in the modern day). However, Columbus did not realize that he wasn't in Asia; he called the people he saw "Indians" even though he was far from India. This is why Native Americans are sometimes called "American Indians" even today.

To Columbus and other Europeans, these areas they sailed to were called the "New World." Columbus' trips began a period called the Age of Discovery, in which explorers from European countries traveled to and took control of many parts of the world.

How is Columbus Day celebrated?

In the US, the second Monday of October is known as Columbus Day. It is a federal holiday, which means that some businesses, schools and government offices are closed. Officially, it is a day to celebrate Columbus' arrival in the Americas and his discovery of the New World. 

So what do people do on Columbus Day? 

Not every holiday has a big celebration with food or decorations like Christmas, Halloween or Thanksgiving. Although there are groups who hold special ceremonies, holidays such as Columbus Day, Presidents' Day and Labor Day are often simply days for people to relax and take a break from work or school.

What is Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

A Native American woman wearing a headdress and holding two feathers in front of her face

"Indigenous" is an adjective that refers to the first people to live in a place. Therefore, Indigenous Peoples' Day is a day for celebrating and honoring the native people of America.

The arrival of Columbus and other explorers in America had a very negative effect on the people already living there. Many were killed or were forced to work as slaves for the Europeans. In addition, the new people arriving brought diseases from their countries that killed many of the native people. 

Because of this history, many people have fought against the idea of celebrating Columbus with a holiday. Additionally, they say that he could not have "discovered" a new world if there were people already living there.

So, on the second Monday of October — the same day as Columbus Day — they instead celebrate the original Americans as a way to honor their culture and to make the real history of the country known.

How is Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrated?

Similar to Columbus Day, there are no clear, common ways to celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day. However, many people use the day to reflect on, or think about, the nation's history and to educate themselves on Native Americans and the reality of what happened in the past.

Related vocabulary

A woman sitting on the beach and thinking deeply while looking out to the ocean


"Reflecting" is thinking deeply about something that happened in the past.

After losing the big game, the coach advised the team to reflect on what they did right and what they can improve.


When a person or group experiences "discrimination," they are being treated unfairly by others because of their race, gender, religious beliefs, etc.

Every year, thousands of people leave their home countries in order to escape violence or discrimination.


When something has been "whitewashed," it has been changed in order to hide unpleasant facts or to make it look better. Additionally, it can refer to making the achievements of white people seem more important than the achievements of people of other races.

Supporters of Indigenous Peoples' Day say that Columbus Day whitewashes the violence he committed against Native Americans.


"Colonization" is the process of one country taking over and controlling another.

In recent years, many European countries have been removing statues and monuments that celebrate their colonization of other nations.


We can use "recognize" casually to say that we see and understand who or what a person or thing is.

I couldn't recognize Beth after she changed her hairstyle.

However, it has another meaning: "to acknowledge the existence, quality or legality of something." This meaning is often used in politics and law.

In 2021, President Joe Biden became the first US president to officially recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day.


We can use "adopt" in the sense of becoming the parent or guardian of a child or a pet.

We adopted our dog Charlie from the local animal shelter.

However, it can also mean "to choose to accept, use or follow something." This meaning is often applied to laws and rules as well as special days.

Memorial Day, a day for honoring US soldiers who have died serving the country, was first adopted in 1868.


It can be very fascinating to look into the history of the holidays people celebrate every year. You will often be surprised by the information you find, and learning more can give you a new understanding of the culture that celebrates it.

If you found this article interesting, you should also take a look at our article on Juneteenth, America's newest federal holiday!