You would think that a season meant for celebrating and happiness would be relatively easy to handle programming-wise, yet within libraries the winter holiday season can be a public and political minefield, most of which you probably never thought of before…and once you make a misstep, you will be aware forever more.
There seem to be extremely high expectations around the winter holiday seasons in terms of programming and offerings within the library setting. Whether it’s tradition, community, or some other reason it seems that there is a huge push for a LARGE number of programs to be fit within a very short timespan. Typically it’s also when the weather starts to turn miserable, when staff members ask for time off for personal reasons, when flu and cold season kicks into high gear, and when stress hits an annual high. And what patrons seem to want is programming that reflects their personal viewpoints on the winter holidays, never mind that their neighbor may have a different viewpoint or not even celebrate in the same way. As a result, if the library doesn’t celebrate in a certain way, then the library appears to be wrong, not the expectations of the patrons.
From my experience, how libraries handle holidays starts from the top down, and the best way we’ve ever handled it has been simply to work with the community and the library staff. If you’re doing things that don’t fit within your community, or alienating patrons within your community, you’re losing those patrons and they will make negative associations; it’s the same with staff members. Yet it seems with winter, sometimes common sense goes out the window- Oh, Santa is everywhere and so that’s OK, or Oh, it’s just a Christmas tree. It’s just this, it’s just that. But for those who don’t celebrate those holidays, it’s not JUST that. A library is a safe space, and if we allow the library to become just another place where their beliefs are not respected, or even a place where they’re not reflected, then they lose that safe space for months at a time. It’s in every city’s mission statement that I’ve seen- “we will not discriminate due to race, religion….” So why are we only recognizing one holiday when the library is supposed to be welcoming all of our patrons?
We need to make sure that if we’re celebrating something during this time, we’re celebrating everything during the winter months: if we’re celebrating Christmas, then we’re also celebrating Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, and the Feast of Guadalupe this year, and making sure that there aren’t holidays we’re missing next year that move around. Talk to your community leaders and see what’s appropriate in your community- I’ve been in branches where it’s been perfectly fine to have both menorahs and trees, and other branches where if Hanukkah did not overlap with Christmas then the Jewish community requested we had only the menorah up when it was Hanukkah, and we did. The same goes for Kwanzaa: the communities where I’ve worked in, the leaders said that because we were the library it was perfectly fine to have Kwanzaa celebrations with the other symbols still up as long as the Kwanzaa symbols were in a separate location, but we’ve always asked, because it’s one of Kwanzaa’s stated principles to be the only cultural decoration. It wouldn’t do us any good to try to celebrate all and yet manage to offend everyone.
Yet, I know it’s an uphill battle. And at times, it’s one that you won’t win, or that you will win in pieces. In every library I’ve worked with so far, I’ve been in Texas, and there has never NOT been a Christmas tree or a holiday book display. Typically the book display showcased holidays that were not covered by the Christmas tree, and storytimes revolved around winter and snow, and Santa stories, because surely such topics must be safe- after all, Coca Cola uses Santa. Therefore, he can’t be religious. And if there are books about the other holidays on display, that balances out the tree, and the nativity, and everything else that’s Christian, right? Well…not so much.
The best times we’ve had have been when we’ve worked with the community. Talking with our Friends of the Library, and the local community groups, in one situation we knew that a large number of our patrons celebrated Kwanzaa, and a large number were also Muslim, so we made sure during the year to celebrate the Muslim holidays appropriately. When the winter holidays came around, the Muslim holidays didn’t fall in that time frame those years, but we had Santa come to visit and took pictures of the kids that we then gave to the parents, and had a visiting party where we had board games and winter crafts. When it came time for Kwanzaa, we had the neighborhood leaders come in and held ceremonies during the afternoon with the youth each day talking about the symbols of Kwanzaa and which they meant. The community came out in the hundreds and it became something special each year.
Other libraries around me go completely silent on the holiday debate entirely; if there are any decorations at all, they err completely to the side of caution and go with generic winter themes, as in snowflakes and penguins. There are recipe exchanges and gift creation programs, but they are extremely careful never to mention a holiday in connection with any program. Even when the city is closed on December 25, they are closed for “the winter holiday” or “the city holiday.”
But there are times when lines are stretched extremely thin. One library I worked in had a staff member that made a point of telling her church’s denomination-specific, entirely religious version of the Christmas story as a program, with the approval of the library director. There was also no need for anything other than Santa and Christmas stories on display. No amount of discussion was going to change anything, even though I tried. It was always this way, this was a Christian town, and “we” were going to have it that way. If “people” didn’t like it, then they could look at the calendar and just not come to the program, just like they could avoid the Easter programs as well.
Many different branches, different library systems, and different approaches to the winter holidays. What are you doing in your library? What is your best approach? Share with us on facebook, twitter, tumblr, or in the comments to start the discussion! We’ll compile all the responses and share them out!