So You’re Going to Put Up a Christmas Tree in Your Library: Some Helpful Tips When You’re Trying to Justify your Holiday Programming and Decorations

There’s a conversation that I’ve simply decided that I’m not going to participate in anymore among fellow (mostly children’s) librarians: Whether or not libraries should display holiday decorations and hold holiday programming. I have always firmly believed that a library should be a holiday-free zone. I’m not talking about displays of holiday books, because of course it’s efficient for staff members and library patrons to have easy access to seasonal titles. I’m talking about decking out a library in Christmas trees, elves on shelves, and Santas, as well as holding any kind of holiday-related programming. Though I don’t condone displays of other holidays such as Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, I find that the biggest perpetrators of library holiday decorations are Christmas-obsessed children’s librarians. Though I could spend an entire blog post discussing why a Christmas-saturated library is anti-community, I will sum up my thoughts by simply saying that Christmas-related displays and programming can feel unwelcoming for many different patrons for many different reasons. If this is the first time that you’re considering whether or not Christmas decorations and programming are appropriate for the library, please read Bryce’s “Holidays and Libraries: Rethinking Our Programming” right now. This post will be here when you get back.

The debates around Christmas in the library start to go down in ALA Think Tank and Storytime Underground starting right around November every year, though I believe SU has an updated policy regarding these discussions. I used to whole-heartedly, and often angrily, participate in every 300 comment argument about this topic. I was told by holiday enthusiasts that I hated Christmas, hated fun, and was clearly “triggered” by sugar plum fairies and Mrs. Claus. Sometimes groups like these can be such an echo chamber, where similarly-minded people pile on and become emboldened by a lack of dissent.

After Trump got elected, I found myself simply out of the emotional bandwidth to take part in these online arguments anymore. With white supremacists roaming the streets, swastikas being scribbled all over children’s playgrounds, Jewish people celebrating the High Holy days in hiding, and general anti-Semitism on the rise, I no longer wanted to be that librarian with the Jewish last name explaining what it feels like to be erased (this is not to diminish our country’s problems with anti-Muslim crime and xenophobia, however my experiences give me the confidence only to speak out about this as a sort-of-Jewish person). I came to the conclusion that librarians are going to do what librarians are going to do, and there was no way I was going to talk anyone out of anything.

So, because librarians love Christmas and there’s no getting around that, I’d like to share just a couple of helpful tips when justifying Christmas/holiday decorations and programming to your patrons and coworkers.

But first, a little background on me as a pseudo-religious person: I was raised by a Presbyterian mother and a Jewish-ish father. After years of Sunday school and seders and being Mary in the Christmas pageant and shoving my brother to get to the afikomen first, I started to identify as a Cultural Jew who dabbles with witchy-stuff just like all good women in 2017. Around this time of year, I dig my menorah out of the closet and put up my pink sparkly plastic Christmas tree. I’m not particularly invested in either holiday, but like many, I enjoy spending holiday time with the people I love.

Now, without further ado, several things to keep in mind for Librarians Who Are Trying to Justify Having That Christmas Tree:

  1. Christmas is not “for everyone”: It can seem like a really nice sentiment to say that your Christmas decorations and programming are open to the public and can be enjoyed by everyone. This notion, I’d like to think, comes from a welcoming place and it’s certainly lovely to want to be inclusive. It’s important to remember, however, that not every patron wants to be included in Christmas-related activities. Many patrons have traditions of their own that exist outside of the Christmas holiday. Others have a variety of reasons for not wanting to participate. These can be religious, financial, or personal.
  2. The Christmas tree may not be a religious symbol, but they’re still called Christmas trees: See also: the Elf on the Shelf and Santa Claus. While trees and elves may not be part of the Biblical story of Christmas, they are still related to Christmas. I know the urge is to remind people that the Christmas tree can be traced back to pagan traditions, but this piece of information is rarely helpful in conversations like this, especially since pagans/Wiccans are rarely, if ever, included in library celebrations. Elves are exclusively found in Santa/Christmas imagery, so games involving the Elf on the Shelf may certainly be played by non-Christian children if they wish, but they weren’t created with them in mind. Some parents may not want their children to sit on Santa’s lap because it’s simply not part of their holiday traditions. Libraries may feel the need to use a product like the Mensch on a Bench, but it’s important to remember that Hanukkah is a much older holiday than Christmas, and it has its own traditions that exist outside of Christianity.
  3. You are not providing a “learning experience” for non-Christians to learn about other cultures: If you’re an American and you don’t live in a devout and isolated non-Christian community, chances are, you already know plenty about Christmas. Libraries do not need to decorate for Christmas, or hold Christmas programming, to provide an access point for patrons to learn about the holiday. Many of us learn Christmas songs in school, watch Christmas commercials and programs on TV, see decorations in stores, church yards, and public streets. Christianity is the dominate religion of the United States. Information about its major holidays is super-saturated into our minds from an early age. Should a patron ask for information regarding the holiday, luckily, most libraries are fully stocked with the appropriate books and periodicals.
  4. Hanukkah is not Jewish Christmas: Quite often librarians will justify their Christmas decorations by pointing to their dreidel or menorah decorations. It’s a nice stab at inclusion, but it’s important to remember that Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday and has only become commercial due to its proximity to Christmas. In fact, the most important Jewish holidays come earlier in the year. So, if you’re truly concerned about Jewish representation in your library, it’s time to learn about Passover and the High Holy days. However…
  5. Jewish holidays are not as easy to secularize as Christmas and Easter: Christmas has trees and Santa, Easter has bunnies, eggs, and candy, but Jewish holidays, beyond dreidels and gelt, are difficult to talk about outside of religion. While you might decide to decorate with a menorah, remember that electric menorahs are really just a representation of a menorah. Candles on real menorahs need to be lit in a specific order, typically while someone says a blessing.
  6. Your library doesn’t cover “all the holidays”: Representing Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Diwali is fantastic, but the end-of-the-year is jam-packed with holidays, religious and otherwise. It’s noble, but impossible, to try to include everyone, especially in a way that is respectful and well-informed. Are you and your staff confident enough to speak as experts when it comes to many, many holidays? Are you well-versed enough in these holidays to represent them respectfully?
  7. No community is homogenous: Often librarians assume that holiday decorating is fine for their community because of the misguided notion that all of their patrons have identical religious and ideological beliefs. There is no way for a library worker to be fully aware of the religious preferences of every community member.
  8. “But the kids just love Christmas at the library!” Sure! Many of them do! Are there other ways you could create fun at your library in December? You’re a librarian. You can do it. And if you miss Christmas storytime that much, maybe there’s a church Sunday school you can volunteer at.
  9. “No patron has ever complained about the Christmas tree!”: Anyone who has worked in retail has been told that most unhappy customers won’t complain to management, they’ll simply never return. Don’t assume that patrons who have been made to feel unwelcome will feel comfortable enough to approach library management.
    Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 2.47.35 PM
  10. Our country is becoming less and less friendly to non-Christians: In addition to the anti-Semitic crimes I mentioned earlier, anti-Muslim violence is on the rise, as well. We’ve been told that by our President that white supremacists decked out in swastikas are “very fine people.” In addition, he’s talked extensively of his love of Christmas while saying things like, “We’re gonna be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ at every store. You can leave ‘happy holidays’ at the corner.”  When non-Christians are given the message, on a national platform, that inclusive phrases like “happy holidays” aren’t appropriate, but white supremacists are, you might see why some of your patrons might need a break from Christmas. Your library could be that haven.

But, you know, you’re probably going to put up that Christmas tree anyway.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Ugh, ♥ Ingrid

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8 thoughts on “So You’re Going to Put Up a Christmas Tree in Your Library: Some Helpful Tips When You’re Trying to Justify your Holiday Programming and Decorations

  1. As a children’s librarian who loves Christmas, I recognize that I need to keep my love for the holiday at home. There are plenty of fun ways to decorate in the month of December without including a Christmas tree or Santa.

  2. When I brought this up with the management team at my library last year, one of my [white, male, Christian] colleagues told me that if we don’t put up Christmas trees at the library we’re infringing on his right to practice his religion. I just don’t have the words….

  3. Else

    And let’s not forget the number of Christians that feel that the commercialization of the holiday (Santa, Elves, etc) takes away from the spiritual/family aspects of the holiday. I don’t want to alienate anyone.

    I did once get a call asking what storytime I was planning and when the potential patron found out that it wasn’t a Christmas storytime I was told “it just wasn’t worth coming to the library unless it was Christmas.” This was not a regular customer. In all the years that I’ve done storytime, it was the ONLY complaint I’d ever gotten from a customer.

  4. Dee

    I posted as much on Twitter but quickly deleted out of concern for what might happen if colleagues or management saw it. I would love to print this and put it on the fridge in my workplace. My (publicly funded) academic library still puts up nativity scenes, and it’s always made me incredibly uncomfortable. (Don’t get me started on the tinsel that I end up picking out of my keyboard until March . . .)

      1. Dee

        Right? Someone with a connection to the institution collected them from over a hundred different countries and then donated them to us. They’re interesting from an artistic perspective, and probably worth digitizing and archiving, but displaying them right by the front door for all of December . . . I can’t get behind that.

  5. My city library strings lights up because that’s what the rest of the downtown buildings do, but that’s it. (I suspect it’s the fact that that’s all it has the budget for. When you’re only open for three days of the week, you spend your money elsewhere.) Only time I’ve ever been happy for tiny budgets in my city library.

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