Why Are We Working on Columbus Day?

By Ed Spivey Jr. 10-12-2009

Every year on Columbus Day, the Sojourners team gathers around bagels, juice, and coffee to listen to our resident humorist and art director, Ed Spivey Jr., read an essay about Christopher Columbus. This year, we decided to share it with all of you, so I stood in the back with my stealthy little hand-held camera to record the jokes and antics. Apologies for the shaky footage, but it settles down after the first few minutes. If you'd rather just read Ed's essay, it is below.

Also, Ed Spivey has recently published a book of his best essays, titled A Hamster is Missing in Washington, D.C. Order the book for yourself and each of your loved ones for the holidays.

Welcome to the 12th annual Christopher Columbus Day celebration at Sojourners. Or then again, maybe it's our first. I just turned 60 and I forget things. Regardless, we're here to answer an important question that the interns asked themselves this morning, after telling Sheldon to stop being so perky before the rest of them had had their coffee. And that question is: why are we working today? Most of the other interns they know around town aren't working, so why do THEY have to. The answer is simple: Because you're special. (Let me tell you a secret: a lot of those interns in other programs applied here first, but didn't make the cut. They failed an important requirement during their tour of our facilities: they did not show deference to the art director.)

Be that as it may, we are here to honor Christopher Columbus, a man who many Americans of Italian lineage revere because they think he, too, was Italian, although he wasn't, because at that time there were no Italians, no Italy, and, come to think of it, no authentic Italian pizza, because Marco Polo hadn't brought it back from China yet. Back then, people didn't know geography. Spain thought there was England, and Spain, and then a bunch of stuff on the right. China thought there was China, and a bunch of stuff on the left. But that's another story.

This is the story of Christopher Columbus, a man respected for his boldness and feared for his bravery and recognizable by the fact that he always carried a sword like this wherever he went. And it was a sword EXACTLY like this: a cheap little wooden sword painted silver. It was the sword of his youth, a sentimental object he never would be without. It was the sword his parents gave a young Christopher Columbus and told him to use it while performing in the coveted role of Roman Centurion at the church Christmas Pageant. When he showed up for the Christmas play, however, he realized that his unfeeling parents had played a cruel joke on him. There was, as most of us know from personal experience, no Roman Centurion at the manger during Christ's birth. Columbus would have fled in humiliation from the laughter of the other children -- who, to be honest, had absolutely no room for mocking since they looked pretty funny themselves in their fathers' bathrobes -- were it not for a kindly Sunday School teacher who pulled Christopher aside and said he could stand with the children pretending to be farm animals. Which is why, to this day, there's always one kid in the back holding a sword to his head, pretending to be a unicorn.

What, you never heard of unicorns at the manager? Well, it's just as plausible as all that other stuff. Lowing cattle? Please. Cattle don't low. They go MWRAWWWWEEEH. Try to time your contractions with THAT racket going on. Not to mention that OTHER thing cattle do after a big meal. And do you really think there was a donkey, a bunch of sheep and, in some of your wealthier church nativity scenes, a little drummer boy present during the birth of Christ? And we're also led to believe there were shepherds who were both sore and afraid and wondering why that angel over there keeps wanting to talk with them, despite the fact they've got to get the herd to Tucson by morning. Or was I thinking of some other story.

But back to Christopher Columbus -- you thought I forgot. Despite the struggles and humiliations of his youth, he grew up to be a powerful sailor that would have garnered the respect of all as he paced aboard his ship, were it not for that stupid little wooden sword, which we think he often held aloft from his perch on the Santa Maria, as he led his small fleet of ships to discover new lands. Abaft of the Santa Maria there were his two sister ships, the Nina and the Scurvey, the latter of which, sadly, did not return to sea after docking at a small Mediterranean coastal town so the crew could trade all its fruits and vegetables for ale, rightly thinking that, if they were going to follow a little guy with a wooden sword maybe they'd better be in the right frame of mind. Fortunately, Columbus was able to lease another ship, which he re-named the Pinta, figuring that it wouldn't look good in the history books to have his fleet include a boat called Wanda.

But off he sailed and within a few weeks he discovered not mainland America, but Cuba, part of the Americas, but the part that Christopher Columbus promptly declared to be China. He even required his sailors to sign an affidavit agreeing to this discovery, upon penalty of death if they would later deny it. And death at the point of a small wooden sword is a long process.

Of course, the Cubans at the time didn't feel they needed to be discovered, since they were pre-existing and were just going about their business until this little man with a little sword walked ashore and declared them all Catholic. This surprised the natives, most of which were Presbyterians.

Be that as it may, Columbus would return to Spain and report to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, the original financiers of his journey to India, which he didn't find, and announce that he had found a new route to China, one that was two-thirds shorter than the old way. When asked by the queen why, instead of spices and gold, he had brought back mainly pinatas, Columbus explained that this was a new part of China. Then he passed around the rum and cokes he had also brought back, and that pretty much changed the subject.

In the meantime, Amerigo Vespucci was on his way to discover the real mainland of the Americas, which, being an educated man with a real sword, he knew was NOT China but, in fact, a completely new world that he would explore in several subsequent trips which included the first charting of the Amazon River. Which is why our continent is named for him, and not Christopher Columbus, the little man who discovered a little island which is today called Cuba, probably after somebody else.

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