White House Petition to Make Lunar New Year a Recognized Federal Holiday in Schools

February 4, 2013
Next weekend, many Asian Americans will be celebrating the Lunar New Year, which this year marks the end of the Year of the Dragon and ushers in the Year of the Snake.

Next weekend, many Asian Americans will be celebrating the Lunar New Year, which this year marks the end of the Year of the Dragon and ushers in the Year of the Snake.

Under the Obama administration, the White House website has become a hub of online social activism where users can create and share petitions on a variety of topics. Petitions that receive a certain threshold of signatures receive official responses from the White House, often to humorous ends.

However, this function has also been used to address relevant social and political issues in this country, including the recent spates of school shootings and gun violence. Relevant to the Asian American community, a petition was recently created by user B.C. requesting that Lunar New Year be made into a federally-recognized holiday. Argues the petition:

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.

Now, it’s true that many Asian Americans celebrate the Lunar New Year. And, it’s certainly frustrating that Lunar New Year, which is the major holiday in the Lunar calendar observed by those East Asian cultures, is unrecognized in the United States. With the growing Asian American population in this country, this holiday is likely to become more relevant in America.

However, this petition is, I think, conceptually flawed. First of all, school holidays are set by local school districts or state-level Boards of Education, not by the federal government: this is why the start dates of spring, winter and summer holidays vary from school to school. Secondly, while Asian American populations are large in some areas of the country, there are virtually no Asian Americans in other parts of the country; yet a federally-recognized holiday would by definition apply to all school districts, and indeed to all federal functions, including such things as the postal service. Should a holiday that is observed by less than 10% of the population dictate access to government services to the rest of the 90%?

One could argue that Easter, Passover, and even Ramadan are often recognized by school districts, and that the first two reflect a strong Judeo-Christian bias in the holidays school districts observe. And they would be true. Certainly, there is room for argument that school districts with high East Asian populations should reflect that constituency by observing Lunar New Year and not penalizing their students for taking those days off. But that is an issue to take to a local school board, not the desk of the president.

Finally, as has been mentioned above, not all Asian Americans observe Lunar New Year. South Asians, for example, have no connection with this holiday.

All that being said, I do think it important that the White House continue to affirm its recognition of America’s cultural diversity by acknowledging important holidays like Lunar New Year. I think it should support grassroots efforts to change local school boards and school districts to eliminate absentee penalties for students who take Lunar New Year off, and to encourage the culturally sensitive teaching of Lunar New Year and other Asian/Asian American cultural practices in the classroom alongside their teaching of the cultural history of Ramadan, Passover, and Easter.

Nonetheless, if you would like to sign the White House petition to make Lunar New Year a federal holiday, here’s the link to it.