Tuesday, October 13, 2009

On Uncelebrating Columbus on Columbus Day

Columbus Day holiday in the U.S., Canadian Thanksgiving holiday here in Quebec-- both celebrated yesterday. Holidays generally mean a day off from work, with banks, schools and the post office closed. If it occurs at either end of a weekend, people usually take off and go somewhere, or they stay home and veg out, or visit friends, go to a movie or head for the mall (if I am to judge by the number of cars in the shopping center parking lots).

As for celebrating whoever the holiday was named after, well ... not a lot of people really think about it too much. Columbus--"founded" America in 1492. That's what they told us in grade school. He didn't just stumble on it and find it--he "founded" it. Wholesale and persistent massacres and strategically planned depopulation by disease are hardly the achievements one normally celebrates, so such events are not often alluded to, except among historians or scholars:

"We gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect." [1]

How come this is rarely mentioned, in connection with the Great Christopher Columbus and his merry band of explorers? (Now, now, stop nitpicking; without him there would be no Columbus Day...)

But what must it have been like, really, to meet the Native American Indians for the first time--and for them to meet these strange new settlers of their land?

"They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells," Christopher Columbus wrote in his logbook in 1495.

"They willingly traded everything they owned.... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane.... They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold." [2]

I spent Columbus's holiday on the road, in a drafty car, for six and a half hours with a large, elderly dog yawning in the back seat, Yo-Yo Ma and Friends filling the airwaves, winding down dark roads under a star-studded sky; then five and a half hours in an old, crowded, unheated bus chugging across to Canada in bone-chilling, finger-numbing cold (ask my fellow passengers!), to meet yet another bus to go two more hours further north. But I am finally home, and glad to be so.

The community garden people called me today to please come remove my giant cosmos, the only plant still left standing there, as they are going to plough the plots in preparation for winter. The unripened green tomatoes I brought in before the frost got to them and individually wrapped in old newspaper and put in a box in the basement, have all turned red and are now ready to eat.

Thanksgiving Day in Canada is not like Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.
A difference of day and night.

I dream of pumpkin pie ....

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