A Columbus Day primer

IF you're confused that Columbus Day this year is celebrated on the date mandated by historical fact, you're not alone. The holiday has usually been celebrated on the wrong day, even before Congress included Columbus Day in the Monday holidays in 1969. Take, for example, the 400th anniversary of Columbus Day in 1892. It was celebrated on Oct. 21, which was dubbed Discovery Day.

In New York City, Friday, Oct. 21, was a holiday for some businesses but not for others. Lawyers transacted business as usual, postal employees were excused after 10 a.m., and parade routes were conspicuous for their lack of parades. New Yorkers had already done their marching Oct. 12.

Discovery Day in the Big Apple was as flat as the world was before Columbus. ``It was merely tolerated, not observed,'' noted the New York Times.

But why Oct. 21?

The New York State Court of Appeals, scheduled to meet on Discovery Day, was asked for an opinion. ``We do not construe anything,'' the court said. ``We make no decision on the controversy, but decide not to sit on Friday. This is simply to be on the safe side.''

In Washington, many government offices, including the Supreme Court, worked the 12th and took off the 21st. The controller of the currency, when besieged with queries whether Oct. 21 was really a legal holiday, refused ``responsibility for deciding'' the matter.

In other cities the day ran the gamut from a little celebration to a bit more. In Yonkers there was a celebration conducted by schoolchildren; Elizabeth, N.J., had a 2-hour parade. In Boston, there was the ringing of church and fire-alarm bells; in Chicago, a fireworks display. And San Francisco made clear that Columbus didn't leave his heart there: It was really quiet.

Why Oct. 21?

No one's certain, but it appears that a clerk recording the congressional resolution authorizing Discovery Day transposed the two numbers - 12 became 21. And neither Congress nor the White House would recognize or admit the error.

Oh well, at least we won't have to worry about such a mistake for the quincentenary in 1992. And we won't have to fret about the exact date of the big show: For in that year the calendar and the Monday holiday just happen to coincide, like this year, on the correct date of Monday, Oct. 12.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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