"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." Albert Einstein

10 September 2015

Holidays @ the Library

I imagine some librarians feel like this when asked about holiday programming.

It is that time of year again. Librarians and craft stores alike are frantically planning their December events and getting ready for the onslaught that is the fall/winter holiday season. With this planning comes the inevitable discussion and collaboration over what types of programs people are offering, and on the heels of this conversation is the eternal debate: shall we or shall we not provide holiday-themed programs, particularly religious ones, at our library? It seems that this is one of the big issues over which most librarians hold a very strong opinion. I've never heard a librarian say, "Meh, whatever" when asked about holiday programming.

Before I get to my opinion on this subject, let me give you a bit of background. I was raised in a very strict religious group which borders on cult status. What we wore, how we spent our money, what we ate and drank, and how we spent our free time was all heavily monitored. While I attended a public school like my neighbors, I dressed differently, spoke differently, and often was excused from my classroom so that I could avoid soiling my soul with the celebrations of Satan.

One of the most important and dangerous days was Halloween. When I was very young, my mother always took that day off of work and kept me home from school. I was not allowed to dress up, go trick-or-treating, pass out candy to others, watch Halloween-themed children's shows, decorate a pumpkin, etc. etc. When night fell we would keep our curtains tightly shut, lock our doors, and turn off all outside lights to discourage the costumed children from descending upon our doorstep. I was taught that this holiday belonged to Satan, and that if I participated, I would belong to him, too.

When I was in fourth grade my mom didn't have enough vacation days left at work to keep me home, so I had to stay at school that day. I cannot possibly articulate how awkward and frustrating it was to be there. Everyone else was happy, wearing costumes and having parties. I had to sit in the back of the classroom and read a book. My teacher attempted to involve me, inviting me to play the games or participate in the costume parade, offering me treats like the others were eating. I had been instructed, though, that I was not to touch any of the party materials at all, so I pulled my PB&J from my brown bag, gave a Ron Weasley smile and said, "No thanks; I'm all set."

This was me, except I wouldn't have been allowed to watch Harry Potter, either.
As an adult, I look back on that day and realize that nothing my classmates were doing was harmful, and that I probably would have enjoyed that party and dressing in a costume, had that been allowed. As a child, though, it was one of the hardest days I'd ever experienced. I felt guilty just for being in the room, and I know my teacher and classmates were confused as to why I was there but not participating. My family belonged to only one of a sizable handful of groups who choose not to participate in various holidays, generally for religious reasons, but on that day I felt totally isolated.

I now work at a public library in the San Francisco Bay Area. To say our patron population is diverse would be an understatement. One of the things I love about doing children's programming is listening to all of the different languages spoken in the midst of crafting or science experiments or whatever we're doing that day. I love being surrounded by this much diversity, and I make a point to reflect that diversity in my collection development, displays, bulletin boards, flyers, etc. etc. However, when it comes to programming, particularly programming about religious holidays, there are a few things I know for sure:
  1. My patrons are not all of one particular primary religion, Christian or otherwise. 
  2. As I was not brought up in most of the world's religions, I would likely do a poor job at representing a holiday or important festival from another culture.
  3. Programming about a particular topic sends the message [accurately or otherwise] that the library is promoting that topic. This is why our library has healthy eating programs but not hot-dog eating contests. If I did programming that reflected popular evangelical American culture, I would be sending the message that these holidays are best/right/good/etc.
  4. There are numerous other venues where persons who celebrate religious holidays can celebrate in whatever way they see fit. Those who want "secular Christmas" can do so, those who want to keep Jesus the reason for the season can do likewise.  On their own time. At another location.
  5. There are patrons at my library, people whose faces I have seen and whose names I know, who cannot attend programs geared toward certain holidays. Their reasons all revolve around the idea of not celebrating that particular holiday, be it Halloween, Christmas, etc. etc. They are from different religions and cultures, but the answer is the same: when there is holiday programming they will stay home.
  6. It is entirely possible to create story times and craft programs that are seasonal without being holiday-related.  For example, I can easily do a pumpkin story time and a pumpkin craft without having to make jack o'lanterns. The internet is a wild and beautiful place full of fun ideas that will ensure I never, ever run out of story time theme possibilities. 
This is the craft I'll use. It's a pumpkin that can be a holiday decoration or just a pumpkin.

My first and foremost instinct is to do no harm, so I have chosen not to use holiday themes in my programming. For example, this October I will have three family story times with these themes: pumpkins, bats, and scary stories. All of these things can sound like Halloween, but I have carefully chosen books which do not mention trick-or-treating or carving pumpkins, etc. etc. Children who enjoy Halloween can think of these as fitting with their scary October holiday season. Children who do not celebrate Halloween can enjoy fall themes and learning about things like bats without worrying that they will be left out somehow. 

I have read numerous discussions on Facebook and in comments on other blog posts where the debate can get very heated. I generally choose to lurk in these conversations, both because my personal opinion is mirrored in other peoples' statements and also because, as already stated, my personal opinion is just that: my opinion. 

Other libraries have different communities. Other librarians have different backgrounds. I will not state emphatically that my approach is the only and best approach. Rather, I tell my story so that you may consider alternatives. 

Feel free to leave comments about how your library does things or why you choose or choose not to have holiday programming, but please use kindness and courtesy in your words. I reserve the right to delete comments that resort to name-calling or internet shouting.


Nic said...

This is a great way to go. I grew up atheist in a small, heavily Southern Baptist town. I got inundated with religion everywhere, often aggressively by people who seemed to take my beliefs personally. When I would see Christmas stuff up at the public library, it just didn't feel fair. Public, taxpayer-funded spaces shouldn't take sides. It felt especially harsh to me at the time given that the library seemed to be siding with the dominant culture that was already inescapable everywhere else. As you say, people who want to celebrate Christmas can easily find places to do it in America!

I also appreciate your assessment that you couldn't provide accurate/respectful/quality programming on other world religions' holidays. Too often, I think that people say, "Oh, we're being inclusive, celebrating all the holidays!" when basically they're adding a couple of Kwanzaa books to a display so they can justify having a zillion Christmas books up there. Plus, "celebrate all the [religious] holidays" is still not that friendly to us secular types.

lin said...

I appreciate your civilized polite response. Here's another perspective: what would you say to 'minority' holiday programming? You state that you aren't comfortable with celebrating other religions, because you might get it wrong. What if a parent came up to you and offered to do something related to Diwali or the Mid-Autumn Festival or Day of the Dead? Would you turn him/her down because you don't do religious programming? Or would you work with them to put on something fun and age-appropriate? After that, would you feel comfortable in doing a Diwali program on your own (even if you just repeated what you did previously)?

Jenni Frencham said...

That's an interesting question. I haven't actually had any patrons approach me about doing any type of programming at all, religious or otherwise.

In this case, I would turn down any offers for religious-oriented programming, regardless of the religion's status as majority or minority in our community/nation. Some libraries allow community groups to use their auditorium/meeting room spaces for non-library related meetings, and if our library did that, I would certainly help the parent through the reservation process and would gladly pull any materials from our collection, the same way I would with any patron. However, I wouldn't sponsor this type of program as an official library program, nor would I want to repeat it independently the next year. Just as I will not endorse Christianity through my library programming, I will also not endorse another religion.

What I do endorse is the development of a lifelong love of reading and learning, and I can do that through creative programming that does not focus on religious holidays.

Abby said...

Beautifully written.