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Vincent Capone

Is It Time for American Schools to Recognize the Lunar New Year Holiday?

China and members of its diaspora around the world have rung in the lunar new year. (By the Chinese Student and Scholar Association of Milan/Flickr)

Should American schools celebrate the Lunar New Year? In both New York City and nationwide, more and more people are saying “yes.”

Just yesterday, a petition on the White House’s official website calling for the establishment of Lunar New Year as a national holiday received over 39,214 signatures by its February 14 deadline, surpassing the 25,000 signature threshold required at the time of the petition’s creation to require a White House response. Although that threshold has since been raised to 100,000, the petition was apparently created just hours before the White House announced the change, and it thus remains subject to the earlier, lower threshold.

The petition is titled, “Establish Lunar New Year as a National Holiday. Give it the same importance and weight as the other cultural holidays.” It reads:

Our nation is composed of a wide array of nationalities and cultural background. It is imperative that we as a diverse nation to recognize and acknowledge that diversity. The Asian population represents a large percentage in U.S.’s population and is growing ever more. Students in public schools voluntarily take off from school to spend the Lunar New Year holiday at home with families. Yet, they are marked absent for their in-attendance. Please make this important holiday widely recognized and make it an official day off for students too. The holidays in our calendar year already consists of holidays from different cultures and definitely has room for Lunar New Year too.

The Lunar New Year signifies important celebrations across the Asian American Diaspora, including the Chinese New Year. During this time, families comes together from all over to cook a large feast on the eve of the New Year. Designating the Lunar New Year as an official school holiday would enable students to spend more time with their families. In addition, when Asian-American communities act in observance of the holiday, community schools and businesses are noticeably affected.

Currently, a student who notifies their school in anticipation of celebrating the holiday will receive an “excused” absence. But it remains an absence on the student’s record, and the student still misses coursework from classes missed. At present, San Francisco is the only city in the United States that recognizes the holiday on its academic calendar.

The New York push

The push is happening at the local level as well. In New York City, officials have been calling upon Mayor Michael Bloomberg to make the Lunar New Year an official holiday for the New York public school system. New York State Senator Daniel Squadron, who represents an area that includes New York City’s Chinatown, as well as then-Assemblywoman of Flushing Grace Meng, issued the same call in January of 2012, one that they and other local leaders have recently renewed. Squadron and Meng were the main sponsors of a bill in the New York State Legislature (A1883/S27) that aims to designate the Asian Lunar New Year as a school holiday for all city school districts of one million or more with an Asian population of 7.5% or more. According to Queens’ Times Ledger, the legislation has been introduced five times before.

In a letter sent to Mayor Bloomberg in January 2012, Squadron and Meng invoked the city’s proud multiculturalism, arguing that “designating the Lunar New Year as a school holiday would be an important gesture to Asian Americans that their customs and contributions to our City are appreciated.”

Mayor Bloomberg has since expressed concerns about losing a school day. To counter this concern, Squadron and Meng have urged the Mayor to move the Brooklyn-Queens Day of professional development for school staff to coincide with the Lunar New Year.

Speaking outside of Public School Number 20 in Flushing on January 31, 2013, State Senator Squadron remarked, “We pride ourselves on being one of the most diverse and welcoming cities in the world. It’s time for our school calendar to reflect the huge number of kids whose families observe Lunar New Year.” Last year, the New York City Department of Education reported 15.42% of the public school system population as identifying as Asian American. Nationwide, Asian-Americans number approximately 17.3 million, comprising about 5.6% of the total U.S. population. According to Pew Research, Asian Americans recently passed Hispanics to become the largest group of new immigrants to the United States.

“One of every six New York City public school students is Asian American,” Squadron said. “And they’re forced to choose between spending their most important holiday with their family or going to school. From Chinatown to Flushing and throughout our city, a school holiday would allow students to celebrate Lunar New Year without missing class.”

The proposed bill states that keeping schools open on the Lunar New Year celebration “places an unfair burden on school children within the Asian community. It is impractical to keep the public schools open in Asian communities when there is a significant number of students and instructors who take the day off.”

In the past, the bill passed the state Assembly but stalled in the Senate. The bill needs to pass both houses to move forward in this new legislative session. Amy Spitalnick, Communications Director for Senator Squadron, told Tea Leaf Nation via e-mail, “We believe that if the Senate leadership allows the bill to come to a vote, there will be enough votes to pass it — since there is a majority of Democratic Senators despite the Republican coalition controlling the chamber — so we’re urging the Republican leadership to pass it out of committee and bring it to a full vote.”

Gauging support

State Senator Squadron tweeted his support of the bill and images of the press conference outside P.S. 20 on January 31, 2013, but Twitter discussion of the measure has been very light.

Comments to a related article on the Gothamist blog dated January 23, 2012, titled “Should Lunar New Year Be A NYC School Holiday?” provided more detail, although they almost certainly cannot be taken to represent overall public sentiment toward the proposal.

One Web user sarcastically commented on the school system’s low student performance, writing, “Good thing public school students are exceeding state standards so they can get more time off.” Noting Department of Education statistics on the ethnic makeup of New York City schools, one commenter wrote that “this should go without saying but, for more than one reason, the fact that 15% of students are Asian does not mean 15% of students celebrate Lunar New Year.”

In contrast, Ms. Spitalnick told TLN that response to the still-pending measure has been positive. “Overall, reaction has been very positive to this proposal throughout NYC’s Asian American communities and in general. That includes the many community groups and individuals who have come out in support of it, folks who have contacted our office, and, of course, what we hear when we’re out in the community talking about the proposal. A number of principals and teachers have highlighted the dramatic absence rates their schools experience on Lunar New Year.”

Time will tell what happens at the local and national levels. The White House is technically required to respond to the online petition, although there is no particular time frame within which it must do so. Meanwhile, state officials from all over New York City are throwing their weight behind the proposal, and now-U.S. Representative Meng has continued to trumpet her support. For now, the growing number of students celebrating the Lunar New Year in the U.S. will have to continue to rely on “excused absences.”

8 Comments
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Vincent Capone

  • Jahar

    Idiocy. It’s not a part of western culture. We don’t use the lunar calendar.

  • http://twitter.com/GrowBizinChina Wayne Hsu

    Thanks for sharing this news Vincent.

    It would certainly be interesting if somehow the Chinese New Year can make it on the US calendar. It would strengthen the fact that US was and still is the most culturally diversified and receiving nation in the world.

    In the long run, an understanding and appreciation of another culture would always benefit students more than another ordinary day at school.

    • Jahar

      should we tack on ramadan as well. rosh hashana? buddhas birthday?

  • Cultural Imperialist

    ” *the* Lunar New Year ” (my emphasis on *the*)
    Which lunar new year? The Muslim new year? The Hindu new year? The Persian new year? The Jewish new year?
    ” Asian ”
    Which Asia? *All* Asia? From the Bosphorus to Vladivostok? Including the billions who are *not* Chinese *nor* us the Chinese calanedar?

  • http://twitter.com/sbarruchinahand Steve Barru

    Rosh-Hashanah is my lunar new year. Is this going to be a US national holiday? If we are going to make the Chinese lunar new year a holiday, then in fairness all lunar new year celebrations should be US holidays.

    Yes, some Americans and some visitors to the US do celebrate lunar new years at different times of the (solar) calendar year. But the fact remains that lunar new years celebrations are NOT part of American culture. I lived a long time in China, where American holidays are not celebrated. Why should they be? I took time off or did not, as circumstances permitted. This is part of living and working or studying in a foreign country/culture. If the need to have time off at the (Chinese) lunar new year is so important to some Chinese students, I suggest they choose to study in a country that celebrates this holiday.

    • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

      Hi Steve, thanks for your reply. I agree that there is a lot more to the story than meets the eye, and if you make exceptions for certain cultures then you have to make them for all, and that is a very slippery slope, especially with our school systems which are already facing attacks on different fronts.
      I just wanted to comment though that Rosh-Hashanah is actually an officially observed holiday in school districts all over the country. I taught in Philadelphia and our students had it off, as did I when I was a student in the Boston area. So based on that one facet of your argument, I agree that making it a national holiday may not be best, but that for districts with high populations of observers it might be a good call.

      • http://twitter.com/sbarruchinahand Steve Barru

        I think it is a great idea for local school districts or colleges or universities to accommodate large groups of their students who celebrate a holiday that is not a legal US holiday and not part of mainstream American culture. This is a great way to recognize and celebrate diversity in the United States. And it makes far more sense than making the celebrations of one culture that contributes to American diversity a national holiday while ignoring the celebrations of other cultures. Or trying to make all foreign cultural celebrations US national holidays in the name of fairness. There would be no end to how silly that could get.

        • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

          Completely agree!