SEATTLE — Washington could become the first state in the U.S. to make Lunar New Year a paid legal holiday.
Lunar New Year celebrations are cherished by many Washington residents with roots in East Asia and Southeast Asia, so establishing an official holiday would send a message of respect and solidarity, said Rep. My-Linh Thai, D-Bellevue, who’s sponsoring the bill in the Legislature.
House Bill 1516, Thai said, is in part a response to the racism and xenophobia that many Asian Americans have experienced historically and since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The bill would give state employees and public schools the day off. Crucially, it would also serve a symbolic purpose, said Thai, who emigrated from Vietnam as a refugee when she was 15.
“This is a step toward saying that Asian Americans belong here, and this is our home,” she said.
Thai’s bill, which has 39 co-sponsors, advanced from the House’s state government committee Wednesday with a 7-0 vote that included bipartisan support. The next stop is the House’s appropriations committee.
Because the holiday is tied to the lunar calendar, it floats between January and February. According to a legislative report, Lunar New Year celebrations include Chinese New Year, also called Spring Festival, which starts with the second new moon after the winter solstice and can be celebrated over 15 days. In Vietnam, it’s known as T?t. In Korea, it’s called Seollal.
More than 900,000 Washingtonians identify as Asian, or about 12% of the state’s population, according to 2020 census data. That’s up from 9% in 2010.
Not all Asian Americans celebrate a version of Lunar New Year, but it’s the biggest holiday for many, Thai said. Many Asian American communities celebrate the holiday in diverse ways, with foods and traditions that represent prosperity, abundance and togetherness. Among other traditions, people give offerings to ancestors and deities and hang red lanterns “to welcome health, wealth and good fortune,” the legislative report notes.
Connie So, a professor of American ethnic studies at the University of Washington, said Lunar New Year is “a time to reflect on our past, appreciate the present and celebrate the future.”
“I prepare more for this 15-day celebration than for any other holiday,” said So, who believes HB 1516 would recognize a “growing segment of our state” and demonstrate inclusion.
The legislation could also help combat anti-Asian racism, said Minh-Duc Nguyen, executive director of Helping Link, a nonprofit that advocates for Seattle’s Vietnamese community.
“More people would acknowledge the diversity and cultural significance that we bring to the state,” Nguyen said. “There are still people who believe we’re only a burden to the system.”
Washington currently observes 11 legal holidays, including New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. The newest is Juneteenth, which lawmakers added in 2021. State legal holidays are also public school holidays.
Lunar New Year has long been celebrated as a national holiday in some countries in Asia, So said.
The initial version of HB 1516 proposed by Thai designated the Saturday before the start of each Lunar New Year as a legal holiday. It said the holiday would be observed on the appropriate Saturday, rather than the preceding Friday, so that only employees scheduled to work on Saturdays would receive a day off or extra pay.
But the state government committee tweaked the bill Wednesday, approving an amendment by Rep. Sharlett Mena, D-Tacoma. The new version would designate the actual day of Lunar New Year as a legal holiday. It says the holiday, when falling on a Saturday or Sunday, would be observed on a Friday or Monday, as with other legal holidays.
Lawmakers said they were making the change in response to testimony during a public hearing last week. Several community members requested that Lunar New Year be marked on the actual date of the holiday and be treated like other legal holidays.
The cost of the original version of HB 1516 would be about $5.7 million annually, according to a fiscal note. The amended version would cost more, because more state employees would be affected. The House has yet to publish an updated fiscal note for HB 1516; the cost of Juneteenth was estimated to be about $7.5 million.
Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, said the cost may concern some Republicans but called the holiday proposal appropriate and voted to advance the bill.
California made Lunar New Year an official holiday last year but it’s not a paid day off for state employees there, like it would be in Washington.
During last week’s public hearing, residents of Edmonds and Newcastle, who’ve recently organized Lunar New Year celebrations in those cities, spoke in support of HB 1516. They said the celebrations attracted hundreds of people and brought neighbors together.
Mei-Jui Lin, president of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association in Seattle, called the bill a “good idea,” saying a state holiday could provide community members with more opportunities to celebrate the Lunar New Year.
Echoing those sentiments, Nguyen said state recognition would foster pride and reaffirm traditions that can be passed to future generations.
“It will give people permission and will encourage them as well,” said Nguyen, who closes Helping Link annually for the celebration. “That, ‘Hey, this is our culture, these are our roots, and if we don’t uphold it, nobody will.’”