Every year, about this same time, youth services staff start asking the same kinds of questions. “Do you do a Hanukkah/Christmas storytime/program in your library? If so, what do you do?” or “Do you decorate your library for the holidays?” or “Is it important to represent ALL the holidays in the winter?” And so on, and so forth. And every year, I get ranty and ragy about this. Usually just to friends and colleagues, and this year, you are all counted as such. Lucky you!
Let me just cut right to the chase. I am vehemently against holding holiday programs in any library, especially when the holidays have religious foundations. Frankly, even if they are more secular holidays (think Halloween and Valentine’s Day) I believe in approaching them with caution. Even these holidays cannot be celebrated by some of your population (Jehovah’s Witnesses, to mention one group) and you are denying them access to your resources by holding a program based on a holiday of any kind. Try focusing on pumpkins and other festive, fall topics rather than trick-or-treating and Halloween. How about love and pink and red and glitter in February? No need to mention the holiday in order to satisfy your patrons’ desires for some fun festivities — if you really can’t stand to let go of the holiday celebrations, that is.
I’d like to challenge you to do just that, however. Let it go. There is absolutely no need to hold a holiday celebration in your library. You may say, “It’s fun! People want it!,I want it!” and I will say to you, “Lots of things are fun! People will get it for free in lots of other places! And I don’t care what you want–programs are for your patrons (ALL patrons), not for you!” If you love Christmas so much, use your programming expertise and plan something for your church, or friends and family–all willing participants who likely feel the same way you do.
Allow me to explain why you should not provide holiday programs this winter, or ever.
You are not an expert on holidays of all kinds. You cannot accurately explain the meaning behind Hanukkah, Christmas, or any holiday, when a young patron asks about them. If a young patron asks you to explain the birth of Christ, you would not sit them down and tell them what you believe to be true. Rather, you would show them the wide variety of materials explaining this from many points of view.
You would do a reference interview to make sure you are answering their question as best you can with the resources you can access. Likewise, if someone asks you about a holiday, you should provide them with information and not share your personal knowledge, or lack thereof, of any holiday. Unless you plan on having someone come in to talk about the various holidays of their culture, and you plan on doing this all year round, just don’t go there. You run the risk of deeply insulting someone who celebrates a certain holiday if you present it inaccurately, and honestly, you just shouldn’t try to teach people about things you don’t know about.
In my opinion, this falls under the same category as offering medical or legal advice–just don’t do it! Even if you are an expert in some religion or another, you should present about your expertise outside of work time if you so desire, but not on the taxpayer dime. You are representing the library when you present a program on work time. And unless your library is coming out as Christian, you shouldn’t be presenting programs about Christian holidays (or any holidays; this is just an example).
Stop thinking from a traditional, privileged point of view. I sometimes get the impression that anglo tradition is screaming “It’s not fair! I want to do Christmas in the library!” in a Veruca Salt tone, stomping its privileged feet. It is not your right to celebrate Christmas in a public institution. It is your right to celebrate whatever you want on your own time and help patrons find places, outside the library, that offer celebrations or events around any holiday in which they might be interested. As Angie mentioned on the Storytime Underground Facebook page, those who celebrate holidays during the winter have plenty of places to go to celebrate (churches, etc.). They don’t NEED the library to help them celebrate. Conversely, those who do not celebrate Christmas, specifically, have very few places (basically just their own home, if they have one) where “holiday spirit” isn’t in their face constantly. The library should be one of these places.
We are NOT being diverse by including a holiday like Hanukkah in our themed programs for the winter. We are being narrow minded. Ask yourself, “Why Hanukkah?” Did Jewish patrons ask for this type of programming? Have you spoken with leaders in the Jewish communities? Muslim communities? Native Peoples? Indians? And on and on and on? Have you even connected with any of these groups in your community? If you answered no to any of these questions, maybe you should spend time building some relationships instead of planning Santa’s visit. Don’t ignorantly and selfishly pick holidays from these non-anglo cultures that happen about the same time as our precious Christmas. Not cool, people. Celebrate diversity by allowing ALL people to participate in ALL library programs. I really like what Angie (yes, I’m quoting her again, because duh) said in regards to inclusive, diverse programming:
There’s a lot I exclude from programming because of the simple fact I have limited time. Because here’s what it comes down to for me: do you have a Yule storytime for your pagan patrons? Do you have a storytime with no themes but lots of crafts for your atheist patrons? Do you have a Eid al-Fitr storytime? Last year I found out lots of international patrons, particularly those from Italy and Spain, were upset about all the holiday focus on Santa and presents, they wanted books and themes with more focus on the birth of Jesus. Where do I fit that in? If you leave out one of these, or a dozen others I could name, then, hey: why do you hate diversity?
OK, you say to yourself. But I have 10 pagan patrons and 100 Christian ones. Doesn’t it make more sense for me to have a program for the 100? But ya know? I don’t want to provide services and programs to the 100 people at the cost of 10. It’s that simple to me.
Still not convinced? Let me paint you a picture. It’s Wednesday and you’re 9. You come to the library every Wednesday for the library’s craft program. This Wednesday your mom says you can’t go. This Wednesday they are making Santas and Reindeer in the craft program and your family doesn’t allow you to participate in such activities due to your religion. The one place in the world that is still supposed to be open and inviting FOR ALL has just excluded you. And as librarians, we have all failed for allowing this to happen.
Step outside yourself this year, get creative, and offer programs in which everyone in your community can participate. And if you are having a hard time explaining to some patrons and staff why you are leaving Santa out of the library this year? Channel Angie once again: “I have books for everyone, I’ll be happy to help you find them and even recommend some favorites. Please feel free to share them with your families and children and in your churches and ceremonies. But we are a public institution and we’ll be programming around snow so that every kid can feel welcomed, not just the majority.”
I’ll leave you with this quote from Mark Twain. “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”