Every year, youth services staff ask these kinds of questions: “Do you do a Hanukkah/Christmas storytime/program in your library? If so, what do you do?”; “Do you decorate your library for the holidays?”; “Is it important to represent all the holidays in the winter?” And every year, I get ranty about this.
This year, I’d like to challenge you to eliminate holiday-themed programming 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 can get it for free in many other places! And I don’t care what you want—programs are for your patrons (all patrons), not for you!” If you love Christmas, use your programming expertise and plan something for your church or your friends and family—all of them willing participants who likely feel the same way you do.
Allow me to further explain why you should not provide holiday programs this winter, or ever.
You are not an expert on holidays. You cannot accurately explain the meaning behind Hanukkah, Christmas, or any holiday when a young patron asks about them. Nor should you.
If a patron asks about the birth of Christ, you would not tell them your personal beliefs. Rather, you would show them the wide variety of materials available on the topic. You would perform a reference interview to make sure you are answering their question as best you can with the resources you can access. Unless you plan on hosting community members to talk about the various holidays of their cultures 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. This falls under the same category as offering medical or legal advice—just don’t do it! 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).
Stop thinking from a traditional, privileged point of view. It often appears as if 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. However, 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 your job to help patrons find places, outside the library, offering celebrations or events around any holiday in which they might be interested. Remember that those who celebrate holidays during the winter do not need the library to help them celebrate.
Conversely, those who do not celebrate Christmas, specifically, have very few places (basically their own home, if they have one) where “holiday spirit” is not constantly in their face. The library should be one of these places.
We are not being diverse by including a holiday like Hanukkah in our themed winter programs, though we may think we are. Ask yourself, “Why Hanukkah?” Did Jewish patrons request this type of programming? Have you spoken with leaders in your Jewish communities? Muslim communities? Native Peoples? Indians? And on and on and on?
Have you connected with any of these groups in your community? If you answered, “No” to any of these questions, maybe you should spend time building relationships instead of planning Santa’s visit. Do not ignorantly and selfishly pick holidays from non-Anglo cultures that happen about the same time as Christmas. Not cool, people. Celebrate diversity by allowing all people to participate in all library programs. I really like what Angie Manfredi, head of youth services at the Los Alamos County Library System, said on the “Storytime Underground” Facebook page in regards to inclusive, diverse programming: “…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 nine years old. You come to the library every Wednesday for the library’s craft program. Today your mom says you cannot go. Today the craft is making Santas and reindeer, and your family’s religion prevents you from participating. The one place in the world that should be open and inviting for all has just excluded you. And as librarians, we have failed for allowing this to happen.
Step outside yourself this year, get creative, and offer programs in which everyone in your community can participate. If you are having a hard time explaining to patrons and staff why you are leaving Santa out of the library this year, here’s Angie on Facebook 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.”
Finally, some food for thought from Mark Twain. “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
Kendra Jones is a children’s librarian in the U.S. Northwest. She is a toddler-wrangling Twitter addict (@klmpeace) blogging at “Read Sing Play” and “Storytime Underground,”where she is a joint chief and creator of Storytime University.