Leif Erikson Day isn’t the first holiday that comes to mind when people think of holidays in October. Especially in the United States, October calls to mind autumn colors and a chilly (and chilling) night of Halloween festivities.
Another October holiday that few remember until the bank is closed that day is Columbus Day. Celebrated on the second Monday of October, the first Columbus Day commemorated the 300th anniversary of when the legendary explorer first landed in America.
Popular belief would tell you that Columbus “discovered” America when he first sailed to shore. Another October holiday, however, celebrates the man who sailed across the Atlantic almost 500 years earlier.
Leif Erikson Day is celebrated this year on Saturday, October 9, commemorating the real “European discovery of the new world” by an explorer from Iceland. Modern-day Newfoundland is where the Norse explorer first landed around the year 1000.
President Coolidge acknowledged the Viking discovery of North America and coined the holiday in the 1920s, but his move was perceived as a political ploy to gain Scandinavian support, and so the holiday hasn’t gained much fame.
Keep reading, however, and you’ll be in the Leif Erikson Day camp just in time to celebrate the holiday in style!
Who discovered America?
Christopher Columbus has been celebrated for generations as the first European to “discover” America.
Leif Erikson, however, beat him to it by almost half a millennium.
Erikson lived from 970 to 1020. The Norse explorer from Iceland was the son of Erik the Red, who was the founder of the first Norse settlement in Greenland. You could say his adventurous spirit was something he learned from the earliest age.
It’s said that Erikson named the first Viking settlement in modern-day Newfoundland “Vinland” after all the vines and grapes covering the land. The settlement that he and his crew built enabled the men to safely spend the winter in the undiscovered wilderness.
Come springtime, Erikson’s crew loaded their ships with grapes and lumber and headed back to Greenland.
As word of Erikson’s remarkable discovery spread, other Norse explorers made the journey to Vinland where the earlier settlement served as their base.
Is Leif Erikson Day a real holiday?
Thanks to President Coolidge, Leif Erikson Day is a real holiday. In 1925, the President gave special recognition to Erikson at the Norse-American Centennial ball.
Did he really think the holiday should be celebrated, though? Did he think it should replace Columbus Day? President Coolidge’s intentions expired with him, and Leif Erikson Day remains a thing of few people other than history buffs.
Curiously, the October 9th date has added significance that makes the holiday even more worth celebrating. The date was selected by Coolidge to recognize the ship named the Restauration that landed with the first Norwegian immigrants in America (exactly 52 Norwegian Quakers). The ship landed in New York Harbor in 1825, which gave Coolidge another reason to commemorate it in 1925 when he declared the first Leif Erikson Day.
If you’re wondering how someone should celebrate Leif Erikson Day, perhaps start by taking a tour of a Nordic heritage museum. Learn about Scandinavian heritage and especially about their explorations. Maybe coin a #LeifErikson hashtag on social media, too.
Leif Erikson Day is not celebrated in Iceland. With its origin in the U.S. and its combined significance with Norwegian immigration to the “New World,” however, the holiday could truly be whatever you choose to make it.
Fun Facts about Leif Erikson Day
Other than the curious (and possibly political) origin of Leif Erikson Day, there are other fun facts and cultural references worth knowing about:
For instance, did you know there’s a SpongeBob episode called “Leif Erikson Day?” The holiday is, apparently, SpongeBob’s favorite, and SpongeBob famously repeats “hinga-dinga-durgen” to imitate the sound of Scandinavian languages (according to SpongeBob).
Picturing Leif Erikson himself requires stepping back in time to recall quintessential Viking clothing. All materials were gathered and treated by hand, such as animal hide and wool. Linens were also popular.
There’s a famous statue of Leif Erikson in downtown Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. There’s also a copy of the same statue in Newport News, Virginia, on the east coast of the U.S.
Many Nordic people proudly identify themselves and their culture with the courageous explorations of Leif Erikson, his father, and their many peers. As more Nordic communities immigrated to the United States, more Leif Erikson statues began to crop up, particularly in the Midwest where a great number of Nordic communities settled.
Curiously, until President Coolidge coined Leif Erikson Day, much of that history was only known by local Scandinavians.
This October 9th, celebrate Leif Erikson Day yourself, and remember the explorer credited with landing on an American shore over 1000 years ago.
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