Depending on where in the United States you live and whom you work for, Columbus Day may be a day off with pay, another holiday entirely, or no different from any other Monday.
Columbus Day, the second Monday in October, is one of the most inconsistently celebrated U.S. holidays. It’s one of 11 official federal holidays (12 in presidential inauguration years such as this one), which means federal workers get a paid day off and there’s no mail delivery. Because federal offices will be closed, so will most banks and the bond markets that trade in U.S. government debt. The stock markets will remain open, however, as will most retailers and other businesses.
Beyond that, Columbus Day seems to be fading as a widely observed holiday, having come under fire in recent decades from Native American advocates and others.
Given the continuing controversy over how and whether to recognize Christopher Columbus and his accomplishments, we thought it was time to take a new look at the Columbus Day holiday – our first since 2019.
We decided to focus on states and territories that observe Columbus Day (or one of its substitutes) as an official public holiday – meaning that state offices are closed and state workers get a paid day off. Several other states have designated the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or some other name honoring Native Americans, without making it an official state holiday.
Our main sources for this post were state administrative, personnel and human-resources websites, most of which post lists of official state holidays. We supplemented those lists with news reports about local observances, or the lack thereof, of Columbus Day or its many alternatives.
For information about which states previously observed Columbus Day and when they switched or dropped it, we turned to “The Book of the States,” published by the Council of State Governments – supplemented again with news media accounts, historical essays and other sources.
Based on our review of state human resources websites and other sources, only 20 states, plus American Samoa and Puerto Rico, still call the second Monday in October Columbus Day and consider it a public holiday – meaning government offices are closed and state workers have a paid day off. Two decades ago, 25 states and the District of Columbia treated Columbus Day as a public holiday, according to the Council of State Governments’ comprehensive “Book of the States.”
Since the turn of the 21st century, states have taken several different approaches to Columbus Day. California and Delaware dropped the holiday entirely in 2009, the latter swapping in a floating holiday for state workers. Maine, New Mexico and D.C. all renamed the holiday Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2019. Colorado – the first state to designate Columbus Day as a state holiday more than 100 years ago – renamed it in 2020 to honor Frances Xavier Cabrini, a Catholic nun and Italian immigrant who founded dozens of schools, hospitals and orphanages to serve poor immigrants and was canonized in 1946. In those four jurisdictions, the day is still an official (i.e., paid) state holiday.
Since 1990, South Dakota has observed Native Americans’ Day as an official state holiday on the second Monday in October. Tennessee officially observes Columbus Day, but on a completely different day: The governor can and routinely does move the observance to the Friday after Thanksgiving, to facilitate a four-day weekend. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands began substituting Commonwealth Cultural Day for Columbus Day in 2006. And in Hawaii, the day is known as Discoverers’ Day, though it isn’t – and by law can’t be – an official state holiday.
Even places with official Columbus Day holidays sometimes give them alternative identities. The U.S. Virgin Islands, for example, formally observes Columbus Day but puts much more emphasis on Puerto Rico-Virgin Islands Friendship Day, which just happens to fall on the same day. In Alabama, the second Monday in October is also American Indian Heritage Day (since 2000) and Fraternal Day, a day honoring Freemasons, Rotarians, Elks and other social and service clubs. Columbus Day doubles as Yorktown Victory Day, at least in Virginia. And Nebraska last year adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day to coexist with Columbus Day.
Originally conceived as a celebration of Italian American heritage, Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1937, largely due to lobbying by the Knights of Columbus. The holiday was moved from Oct. 12 to the second Monday in October starting in 1971.
More recently, Native American groups and other critics have advocated for changing the holiday to something else, citing Columbus’ own mistreatment of natives and the legacy of European settlement that his voyages initiated. Several states (including Iowa, Vermont, Oregon and Texas) and dozens of cities (including Seattle, San Antonio, Houston and, just last week, Boston) recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead, though not as an official public holiday.
Note: This is an update of a post originally published on Oct. 14, 2013.