In the United States, Columbus Day is a fall holiday that commemorates Italian explorer Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World on October 12, 1492. It has been a federal holiday since 1937 and is always celebrated on the second Monday in October. Federal offices—such as the Post Office—are closed on this day, but observance across the rest of the country varies state to state. In total, only 21 states officially recognize Columbus Day while a small handful of others celebrate a different holiday on the same date, such as Indigenous Peoples' Day.
Columbus Day isn't considered a "major" holiday and, depending on where you live, may not be observed at all. Most businesses stay open, although in some states it's a long weekend where kids are off from school and employees have a paid holiday. If you're planning to travel during this time, book all of your reservations earlier than usual to beat out the holiday crowds and call ahead to make sure the places you want to see will be open.
When Is Columbus Day?
Columbus Day—or concurrent local holidays—is always celebrated on the second Monday of October. The upcoming dates for Columbus Day in the United States, so you can plan your own voyage of exploration, are the following:
- Monday, October 12, 2020
- Monday, October 11, 2021
- Monday, October 10, 2022
- Monday, October 9, 2023
- Monday, October 14, 2024
Where Is Columbus Day Celebrated?
Even though Columbus Day is a legal federal holiday, how it's celebrated varies not only at the state level, but even at the city level. Many parts of the country observe Columbus Day, but only 21 states still maintain the date as a paid holiday: Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.
The second Monday in October is also a paid holiday in four other states, but they've officially changed the designation. South Dakota was the first state to do so and now celebrates Native American's Day, while Maine and New Mexico officially recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day. As of 2020, Colorado celebrates Cabrini Day, in honor of the Italian-American nun Frances Cabrini.
In the rest of the country, the second Monday in October is more or less just another day. Cities with large Italian-American populations, such as San Francisco, may celebrate some version of Columbus Day, while a growing number of places use the date to commemorate the Indigenous people who lived in the Americas long before Columbus arrived.
What to Do for the Holiday?
Even though the second Monday in October isn't a major holiday weekend, there are still events all over the country celebrating Italian-American heritage, Native Americans, fall harvests, and more. Many events are concentrated around New England, where most states observe a three-day weekend and are also in the prime of the fall foliage season.
- The Damariscotta Pumpkinfest & Regatta in Damariscotta, Maine, is always held over Columbus Day weekend and it is a sight to see. The ultimate event of the weekend is the Pumpkin Regatta on Monday, where giant hollowed-out pumpkins are used as boats in a madcap race. Get there early for a harborside seat.
- The Topsfield Fair in Topsfield, Massachusetts, is also a Columbus Day Weekend tradition, and once again, giant pumpkins take center stage. The New England Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off is a highlight of this 201-year-old agricultural fair, which ends its 11-day run on Columbus Day each year.
- The Nantucket Conservation Foundation's Cranberry Festival on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket is your annual chance to observe the cranberry harvest and maybe even wade into a bog. Held the Saturday before Columbus Day, this fall tradition also features freshly harvested cranberries for sale, hayrides, and plentiful food to sample including Nantucket cranberry fudge.
- In the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, California, also known as Little Italy, the Italian Heritage Festival has been an annual event since the first parade in 1869. The queen of the festival presides over the parade with her court, and the local community comes together for a weekend of cultural performances, expositions, and heaping amounts of authentic Italian dishes.
- New York City hosts a similar Columbus Day Parade, which marches along Fifth Avenue on the east side of Central Park. It takes place on the Monday of Columbus Day weekend, and with about 1 million annual spectators, it's the largest Italian-American heritage event in the world.
- Visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a weekend of special events commemorating Indigenous Peoples' Day. The center hosts cultural dances, Native American flutists, historical presentations, and even a book club to discuss assigned readings.
The Controversy of Columbus Day
Since the end of the 20th century, the growing trend among local governments across the U.S. has been to do away with official recognition of Columbus Day, often in favor of commemorating the Native Americans who were already living in the land where Columbus arrived. In fact, Columbus Day festivities are mostly celebrated by those in the Italian-American community, who use their compatriot as a pretext for celebrating their Italian heritage rather than Columbus' arrival to America. Meanwhile, from big metropolitan cities to the remote parts of Alaska, there's a growing awareness of the Indigenous tribes that were decimated by this historical event and the holiday has been reappropriated not only to commemorate their past, but also to advocate for their future.