In most public schools around the U.S., classes are cancelled for Christian holidays like Christmas and Good Friday, while students of other faiths have to choose between going to class and celebrating their own holy days.
That's not the case in New York City. On Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that public schools would be closed next year for Lunar New Year, a major holiday in Chinese and Korean culture. New York schools also cancel classes for the Jewish holidays Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah and the Muslim holidays Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.
Advocates say recognizing these days is important in respecting the city's diverse religious communities. But others wonder whether too many holidays make it harder to fit in schooling or whether districts should be selecting specific religious holidays at all. At public schools across the nation, there's little consensus on which holidays should count.
Lunar New Year, celebrated in January or February and is the biggest holiday of the year in Chinese and Korean culture. (It's a cultural holiday, not a religious one.) In China, where people traditionally go back to their hometown for the holiday, it's the occasion for the largest annual human migration in the world.
"When I was growing-up in Queens, I often felt that my ethnicity was ignored or forgotten about when it came to school holidays," Rep. Grace Meng, New York's first Asian-American member of Congress, said in a statement. "I always wondered why school was closed for my Jewish friends on their New Year—on Rosh Hashanah—but not for my New Year."
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The San Francisco and Tenafly, N.J., public school districts also give students off for Lunar New Year, while schools in Cambridge, Mass.; Paterson, N.J.; and Dearborn, Mich. and other cities close for Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr. But of the 25 largest school districts in the U.S., New York by far recognizes the widest range of holidays:
(One note on the 2015-2016 calendar: this year, Eid Al-Adha, the Muslim feast ending Ramadan, will be held on Sept. 23 in most of the world but Sept. 24 in North America. Some of the schools who give students a holiday on Sept. 23 are treating that as both Yom Kippur and Eid. Eid Al-Fitr, another major Muslim holiday recognized by New York, falls in July this year.)
It’s clear that in public schools around the U.S., the Christian holidays of Christmas and Good Friday are the most commonly observed. Many schools also give students the week before Easter off for spring break. Even the fact that Sundays are days off has to do with the Protestant origins of the nation’s public school system.
In New York City, while Asian-American advocacy groups applauded the decision to include Lunar New Year as an official day-off from school, there are other religious communities who continue to seek their own recognition. Hindu leaders in the city are calling for the inclusion of Diwali, the autumn festival of lights celebrated in Hinduism.
"They recognize Muslim and Jewish holidays, but our Hindu children get nothing when they celebrate Diwali," Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple of Society of North America, told Fusion. "We contribute significantly to the growth of this city—it's only fair that we are given due consideration."
In many districts, students can receive permission to miss classes on other holidays that aren’t officially recognized—but that forces parents to choose between school and their culture. Mysorekar said most Indian families wouldn’t keep their kids home if it meant missing class, and that Diwali should be off for everyone.
But Mayor de Blasio says Diwali is not an option, arguing that adding any more holidays to the calendar would prevent students from receiving their New York State-mandated 180 days of schooling.
In part, the decision to recognize religious holidays has to do with numbers. Closing schools during Muslim holidays "was about inclusion and respect for a very large, burgeoning faith community in New York City," Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, told Fusion. "One out of every eight public school students in New York is Muslim…so in a population of 1.1 million students, that's a lot of students." Some schools in Muslim neighborhoods would have up to half of their students not show up on the holidays, she said.
There's also an element of politics—de Blasio promised to add the Muslim feasts and Lunar New Year to the school calendar during his mayoral campaign, and talked up those decisions in front of Muslim and Asian audiences.
Some observers say it makes more sense for public schools to not honor any religious holidays altogether, instead of choosing certain days off. Charles Haynes, the executive director of the Religious Freedom Center, told Fusion that school districts could face First Amendment legal challenges unless they recognize holidays for a specific secular reason, such as high rates of absenteeism.
"Once you do allow this for some groups, there will be others lining up at the door asking for the same thing," Haynes said. "New York City has the whole world's religions there, so it's tough to say yes to some and no to others."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.