Now that the winter season is upon us in North America, it’s a good time to reflect on how libraries decorate for some religious holidays (and on whether they should continue to do so or not). Please understand that this is not a commentary on anyone’s right to celebrate any holiday they like in their personal lives and homes. This is only a reflection on my thoughts & my learning regarding religious holiday decoration of secular public spaces such as libraries.
**Please understand this article is only about decorating the library for religious holidays, particularly the religions practiced by the dominant culture in this country. This article is not discussing whether libraries should have books or displays of books that reflect various religious holidays, experiences, perspectives, etc. Absolutely I believe libraries should have such books, and that displaying those books near their respective holiday seasons is completely appropriate. I am also not speaking today about curriculum. Learning about different religions and cultures and celebrations within the curriculum is something I support as long as historically excluded and non-dominant cultural celebrations and religions are also included. I am only speaking today on my thoughts regarding actual holiday decorations/celebrations in a public secular space.
I hope that helped clarify, because I think that when people see the discussion about holiday DECORATING they often get confused and think I am saying that religions and religious holidays shouldn’t be represented on our shelves (the should) or within our teaching/curriculum (they should). But there is, I believe, a significant difference between learning and teaching about religions and religious celebrations/holidays, and actually celebrating religions and religious holidays in public secular spaces.
Ok, the pre-explanations have been done. If you are still interested in hearing my thoughts on holiday decorations in public spaces, keep scrolling. 🙂
Please understand that my thinking on this matter has evolved and shifted over the years. When I first started as a librarian, I used to decorate the school library every December, mostly for Christmas, and with a few small references to Hanukkah and Kwanza as well. However, over the last several years, as I have tried to begin working authentically to better understand how libraries can best support an equitable, unbiased, and culturally sensitive community experience for every library user, I have changed my stance on holiday decor in the library. I thought other librarians might be interested or benefit from reading about my experience, so I decided to blog about it today.
“Should the library decorate for the holidays?” This post will talk about some of my thoughts on the matter, as well as detail how/why, in 2019, I chose to stop decorating the library for religious holidays, and what happened as a result!
(While reading this post it may be helpful to know that I am a white educator who was raised in the Lutheran Christian faith.)
To be honest, I had never considered NOT decorating until I read this article: and started reading some of the posts on Future Ready Librarians FB group, though I had certainly thought about inclusion regarding any holiday decorations. Each year, for the first 3 years, I had decorated the library with a book tree, a book Menorah, and a book Kinara. Since I no longer think libraries should decorate, I will not be including any pictures of the decorations I used to put up.
In my mind, the fact that I included a Menorah and Kinara in my decorations meant I was being inclusive and equal, and made it okay that I put up lots of Christmas decorations. If it crossed my mind that the book tree was much bigger, and literally center-stage, in my displays, well I did not dwell on it. Nor did I dwell on the fact that if Christmas, the holiday I grew up celebrating, was not in December, then I likely would not have put up Hannukah or Kwanza decorations.
I didn’t think about how I was only putting those small nods to Hannukah and Kwanza within my Christmas decorations up to balance the Christmas stuff. To make me feel like I wasn’t being biased and was being equal. I didn’t think about the fact that I was only decorating near Christian holidays, and that I certainly was not putting up decorations throughout the entire year for every single holiday for every single religion. Nor was I considering the fact that many people do not celebrate or practice religions, at all. And some people’s religions actually prohibit such celebrations. I was not being culturally sensitive, equitable, or inclusive…. even though I thought I was! It wasn’t until I read some articles that showed different perspectives on this that I began to question my decisions to make the library a space that uplifted, centered, and celebrated one religion, gave a few cursory nods to 2 other religions, and totally failed to consider whether in doings so I was making the library a space that was uncomfortable, or even inhospitable (and possibly hostile) to some of my library users.
After reading the article, though, I was provided with a lot of wonderful perspectives and “food for thought,” that I had not considered before. So I spent a couple weeks mulling all of this over, and discussing it with our library assistant and other library helpers. They too had never considered not decorating the library, and, like me, were not super enthused by the idea of skipping the decorations. Decorating the library, even in the minor ways we usually did, was something that we legitimately enjoyed doing each year, and choosing not to do it felt anathema, and a little sad, at first. Like, maybe we would be missing out on the festival spirit of the season. There was even some fear on our parts that the library would be seen as the “grinch” of the school.
Here are some of the thoughts that went through my head:
- The entire school is decorating right now, will the library seem “un-festive” in comparison if we don’t decorate?
- We’ve always done it, will students be disappointed if we don’t decorate?
- Christmas has become so commercial that it is celebrated now by a lot of people as a secular holiday. So maybe its okay to celebrate it in the library?
- Do I have students who might feel exhausted by all of the constant holiday decorations, who might enjoy the respite an undecorated library could offer?
- Have I been creating an uncomfortable environment for students by decorating in previous years?
- I Really, REALLY, REEEAAALLLLYYY like my annual book tree and REALLY want to do it again.
- Well, not decorating WOULD be less work and less cleanup!
- Adults in library-land are discussing this pretty often and even quite heatedly, I wonder if this is something students are even thinking about?
- Do we have students who would prefer we not decorate for any religion-based holidays?
- What to do, what to do?
I literally had these thoughts circling around in my head for weeks before I finally had the bright idea to just do the one thing I always do when I am considering making a change to the library…..ask the students! Duh! Why didn’t I think of that right away? I always ask my students before I make changes to the library. The library is their space and is intended to meet their needs, after all.
So I did a whiteboard poll and an instagram poll to see what students thought about the idea of decorating the library. The majority response was for decorations. Most students voted that the library should decorate. Many students stipulated that the library should decorate for all holidays (which I assume is in reaction to the fact that it is generally only Christian-based holidays which get much attention.) Although we are a predominantly white, Christian population, we also have significant populations who follow Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and more.
So, the polls showed that the overwhelming majority of students wanted the library to decorate (we had well over 300 responses to the polls).
And yet, I still decided not to decorate this winter holiday season.
Because even though the majority voted yes, some students did vote “no.”
And the fact of the matter is that the library does not exist to serve my needs or preferences. And it does not exist to serve only the majority of our community’s needs or preferences. The library exists to serve everyone’s needs.
Does “majority rules” sometimes need to apply in our policies and decisions? Yes, sometimes there is no getting around that.
Can the library always meet everyone’s needs? No, of course not.
But sometimes we can. Because an undecorated library is usable, welcoming, and comfortable to everyone, but a holiday-decorated library is only usable, welcoming, and comfortable to the students whom enjoy, or are not bothered by, decorations. Since I can avoid marginalizing a segment of my community by something so simple as not decorating, well the choice now seems like a no-brainer.
If decorating the library means that even one student can’t feel comfortable or welcome in the space, then that is reason enough not to decorate. Because I promise that the lack of decorations absolutely will not cause a single student to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.
Student response to the library NOT decorating was……
There was no response. Lack of decorations did not impact their lives in any way. Even though on the poll many students voted for the library to decorate, when we did not decorate, no students seemed to notice or care. Students continued to visit the library as they normally would. Students continued to enjoy the library. Students continued to have their personal, professional, academic, and social needs met at the library.
It turns out that the lack of decorations bothered them not at all. Life went on. And they certainly had many other spaces in their lives which were decorated, so its not like they missed out on anything. It would appear that the only people who missed the decorations were me and some of the other adults lol.
Do I think decorating the library for the holidays will ruin anyone’s life? Probably Not.
Do I think NOT decorating the library for the holidays will ruin anyone’s life? Absolutely Not.
And my main tenant is that the library is for everyone. It belongs to everyone, and it exists to meet the needs of everyone. Not just the majority. Since an undecorated library doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable, but a decorated library may make at least some students uncomfortable, then the decision is easy.
Will we decorate the library and have celebrations in the library? OF COURSE. We’ll continue to decorate the library using artwork and poems, and makercrafts our students make! We’ll continue to celebrate in our library too: we’ll celebrate our students! Their successes, their failures, their efforts, their learning, and more. Keeping the celebrations and decorations in the library focused on the students is, in my opinion, the best way to keep the library comfortable, usable, and belonging to all students. That’s how we build community. Its how libraries can act as a respite and a place of commonality for all. And that’s a beautiful thing to be able to offer.
I would appeal to librarians to set aside any defensiveness this concept might initially cause, and to spend some time sitting with the idea and reflecting authentically with it. Its okay to not like an idea, but its also okay to sit with that discomfort and its okay to change your mind. Just because we’ve always done something doesn’t mean we need to keep doing it. Its okay to admit we can do better than we’ve done in the past.