Jumping Off the Holiday Ban-Wagon

Disagreement, while uncomfortable, is a normal and needed part of librarianship.  I know going into this that people will disagree with me.  And many of those people are librarians I deeply admire which in a way makes this post even harder to write. But I truly believe that disagreement is healthy and can be done respectfully. And it definitely shouldn’t stop us from sharing our opinions and engaging in conversations about our profession.

Two weeks ago, Kendra told us to Check our Holidays at the Door.  Kendra advocates against the type of inauthentic holiday programs that some librarians try to squeeze in in an attempt to be “diverse.”  And I am in total agreement that this type of holiday programming is tokenism and should be avoided.  And as someone who grew up in the United States, and is still aware of movements like this one, I can see why for some American libraries it makes sense to focus on seasonal themes rather than holiday ones.

But the problem for me is that this argument was then extrapolated to include all holiday programming in any library ever.  And I think whenever we use phrases like “all,” “any,” and “ever” we have to be aware of the implication of those words.

The reasons given for excluding all types of holiday programming are:

1. You are not an expert on all holidays.

2. Holiday programs exclude and alienate people from the library.

I’d like to address both of these arguments because after grappling with this topic for over a week, I’ve come to realize I simply disagree.  And as a pretty outspoken atheist, I can assure you it has nothing to do with any religious hidden agenda.

#1: Your Community is the Expert

Where I live –  Vancouver, British Columbia –  we take a an approach to holiday programming that encompasses the official government policy of multiculturalism.  As my colleague Tess Prendergast pointed out, we don’t do the whole “melting pot” thing here.

At the Vancouver Public Library where I work we follow a community-led libraries model.  This model was developed to reach community members who have traditionally not used the library due to social exclusion and other barriers.  In this model, the community member becomes the “expert” and helps guide the library in developing services and collections that meet their needs.  Different groups have different wants and needs and our programming should reflect these differences.

Using the community-led model means we work with community groups and other agencies to plan holiday programming which fit with my library’s stated mission to create an “engaged, informed, and connected city.” Recently, my library hosted a week long series of holiday programs called “The Day of the Dead, Coast Salish Style.”  Our VPL Aboriginal Storyteller in Residence, Rosemary Georgeson, has worked in years past with Latino artists from California on the intersections between the Day of the Dead and First Nations traditions around honouring ancestors and acknowledging the life cycle. Drawing on these conversations, she and other library staff decided to work with community groups to put on a week full of art workshops, storytelling, hands on crafts, and participation in a local parade.  This series of programs was a huge success and drew in many community members who have traditionally faced social exclusion from the library.

Here’s another example. At Surrey Libraries, librarians work with community groups to showcase Diwali.  They hosted a program that included a sari wrapping demonstration, a bollywood dance workshop, and menhdi by donation by partnering with a local South Asian women’s group. They also worked with a local arts club called Shan-E-Punjab to provide a Bhangra and Gidha performance.  These festive activities were chosen by the community groups as ways they publicly celebrate Diwali, and it drew a crowd of over 200 people.

Neither of these examples focus on religion; they focus on the cultural significance the holiday has for members of our community. These programs are not viewed as an assimilation tactic or an expression of cultural power or privilege.  In fact, I would argue they do the opposite. They help build partnerships with community groups and foster the belief that all of our cultural backgrounds are welcome and visible in the library.

Do these types of holiday programs happen all year round and for every major holiday from all cultures? Probably not. Like many other libraries, we experience a stress on limited staff and resources, in addition to an ever increasing list of job duties.  But it’s certainly what we strive for, and working with the community in general (not just for holiday programming) is always a top priority. My point is – it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing mindset.  We plan these programs based on community feedback and we try to the best of our abilities to reflect what is important to them.

#2: Every Program Has a Chance of Alienating or Excluding Someone

One of the commenters on Kendra’s post wrote this statement that summed up exactly what I was thinking.  Kate, if you read this post, thank you for this perspective:

…the exact same thing happens when our therapy dog visits, and little Johnny is allergic to dogs. The same thing happens when we don’t buy the hardcover book because we are using that book’s money on a downloadable audio instead; little Johnny with no device nor internet can’t read it. And the same thing happens when we have Lego club on Saturday, instead of during the week because then the Orthodox Jewish family cannot come. Exclusion happens whether we want it to or not (gosh we try so hard for not, don’t we!!), but it happens. Sometimes we don’t see it or know about it, and I think this is the entire thrust of ‘no holiday programs’ – just remove it all together and we won’t exclude (offend) anyone…well, except those that wish we had some kind of fun event because they can’t afford to take their kid to the paid event at the local mall, or don’t want to drag their kids through the department store to see Santa and have to worry about purchasing something. Yep, we’ve now excluded them too, because the library’s events are FREE and open to anyone who WANTS to come. It’s simple really – if you don’t want to come to THIS particular program, then don’t. There will be something equally fabulous some other day that you WANT to come to, not to worry.”

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be mindful of potential exclusion – we absolutely should and I think Kendra’s post gets that point across.  But the reality is some people don’t celebrate anything – holidays, birthdays, nothing – while other people would have a problem with Harry Potter programs because of witchcraft and magic.  So then it begs the question – why are we drawing the line at holiday programs when so many other things we do have a chance of offending/alienating/excluding?  If you look at it from an academic standpoint then the argument starts to fall apart.

Lastly, on a more philosophical level, when I think about the best possible community I imagine a place where ideas are freely exchanged, where we support diversity in actions and words, and where people are open-minded about each other. How do we achieve this? We have to bring people together, and to me the library stands as one of the most appropriate places to do just that. If people only celebrate within their own cultural group, then we’ve lost a chance to bridge a cultural divide and create an inclusive community.

So that’s my opinion.  This is what works in my city.

I’m thankful to all of my fellow library workers for starting and adding to this discussion.

25 thoughts on “Jumping Off the Holiday Ban-Wagon

  1. This has been such an eye-opening discussion. I am very glad to have a Canadian perspective on this issue– having moved here from the states, where we were specifically banned form having any Christmas decor or programming, to a community where celebrations of just about any kind are an excuse for a party (especially in Winter!) — it has been an interesting transition. I see merits in both sides. I agree with points from both sides. I cannot even begin to be as eloquent or astute as Tess P. & Amy K. in their comments on the original post, but I love the discourse that has resulted from this issue. I especially appreciate the intelligent manner in which librarians are disagreeing. Thanks for your viewpoint!

    1. Thanks, Angela! I’ve never felt more Canadian than writing this post, and I do think there are underlying cultural differences that contribute to the difference in opinions.

  2. ” If people only celebrate within their own cultural group, then we’ve lost a chance to bridge a cultural divide and create an inclusive community.”

    Beautiful. Thank you so much for commenting in what is such an important, albeit challenging, conversation. I, too, agree that it is crucial that we work through our discomfort in these sorts of discourses in order look at the issue from multiple angles and ultimately do what works best where we work, and in keeping with the values of our profession.

  3. Lindsey, thank you, this is just everything and more. And did you know that Port Moody is hosting a Philosopher’s Cafe on this topic in December, inspired by the online discussions of this topic? Here’s the link to the event: I don’t think I can attend because of my kids and their incessant sports activities but I think this event itself reflects the value of the library in actually having these discussions, as well as presenting responsive programs for diverse communities.
    http://library.portmoody.ca/index.aspx?page=72&recordid=3025

    1. I hadn’t seen that yet! I love how Canadian libraries are embracing this as a dialogue. And thanks for all your support, Tess!

  4. Thank you for another well thought out perspective. The how and why of programming is so important no matter the topic. I also love that you mention your library’s mission statement because they aren’t all the same (nor should they be) and we should keep them in mind.

    1. Yes – I was hoping people would notice that! We are guided by our library’s mission statement and strategic objectives and all our programming should be seen in that context. Thank you for your comment!

    1. It is exactly what it’s all about. Kendra’s post made me think a lot about my own practice and those are the best kind of posts.

  5. On this, the day before our American Thanksgiving Day, I am grateful for this post, as well as Kendra’s original post. Conversations….explorations of other people’s perspectives….back-and-forthing with respect and true listening….all of that is vital and rare in so many different venues today (I’m thinking race, politics, religion….). And yet by having these difficult conversations, we all grow. Thank you.

  6. Hooray for thoughtful, respectful discussions!

    Here’s my non-library two-cents worth: I volunteer with an immigrant services organization that puts on monthly events and activities designed to help newcomers build social networks. When we asked our participants what kind of events they were interested in, we were surprised by how many of them wanted to have Halloween and Christmas parties. We realized that many of our newcomer participants were extremely curious about different holidays and wanted to know more about them, but often did not know anyone outside of their cultural or linguistic group who could introduce these traditions to them or celebrate with them. Our events provide a safe, supportive and welcoming opportunity for newcomers to experience new traditions, ask questions, and learn about other cultures. As an example, one mother came up to me almost in tears after a Halloween event to thank us – her daughter had come home from school wanting to carve a pumpkin like her friends, but her parents had had no clue what on Earth she was talking about. Because of our event, the mother was able to experience this new tradition with her daughter. We now celebrate Lunar New Year, Nowruz, Halloween and Christmas, which reflects the cultural diversity of our group.

    1. Jane, this is a wonderful example of listening and responding to your group’s needs and wants. Though it doesn’t take place in a library, it is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. Thank you so much for sharing.

  7. I recently put on a Halloween program, advertised as much as I could, worked hard putting together activities, and ended up with only a few people attending. It was kind of mortifying. So when I read the original post and she made a point about how we do these programs for ourselves, it was like a stab in the heart in my already sore heart. I definitely fell victim to that on Halloween.

    The total opposite of that is our Lunar New Year. We have a large Vietnamese community and folks come out by the hundreds to take part in these celebrations at a couple of the libraries in the system. It also allows people from other cultural groups to experience some of the traditions and learn a bit about Vietnamese culture. You really nailed it by talking about community input. We do programs and celebrations for our communities – not for ourselves – and it’s vital to listen and respond. Thank you!

    1. I love your honesty! I try to listen, respond, and engage with community members, especially those from marginalized groups, when I plan any program as I know many of us do. Thank you for joining this discussion and sharing your very relevant examples.

  8. Working with diverse community members to meet their needs is a wonderful way to side step why libraries are programming holiday activities…but many libraries(think tiny rural) who do not have the resources, nor the diversity…Vietnamese, East Indian etc. are held to their communities’s ubiquitous practices. Yes, a Hispanic community will delivery some changes to the typical Halloween, x-mass programming. the Native American community may also offer some variation….but if the library does not have the staffing, supplies or the varieties of cultures that would enhance the standard of open, diverse and multi-cultural…then they may be left with providing only the one typical option–the majorities point of view and practices. I feel if a public library does not have the resources or community members willing to participate in unique programming that meets their interest/needs…then the middle road of a neutral approach is important. Celebrate, seasons, environment, habitat, food, but leave the majorities’ cultural/religious practices to the entities that provide these activities already…schools, shops, clubs, gathering places (senior centers, community centers etc). There are so many free places in small communities that it is not necessary to provide these activities…the VFW, Lions club, Kiwanis, Masons’s churches etc. all do these activities, egg hunts for Easter, Halloween pumpkin carving…x-mas trees, Santas and gifts…I think it would be rare not to find these offerings in most communities in the United States.

    1. Firstly, I don’t feel I’ve sidestepped the issue at hand. I have directly addressed the two arguments given in the original article. Secondly, I’m not arguing that a “neutral approach” isn’t important. It absolutely is. If you think my post is trying to sidestep that argument then you haven’t understood me at all. Your point about how a small town would do things differently than a big city is EXACTLY the point of my post. I am arguing against a model that insists everybody does everything exactly the same. I provided the examples of ways my Canadian community works with community groups to show that holiday programming can be done in a way that reaches out to underserved groups and allows them to speak to their customs and culture. Perhaps some of this is a cultural difference between Canadians and Americans. You make good points about considering the staffing, resources, and community makeup of your library. Those are definitely all things that should be taken into consideration. If I was in a small American town like you describe, my approach would likely be different. Taking a “no holiday programming” approach is absolutely the right choice for some communities, but it’s foolish to think this can be applied to every library anywhere. And that’s the point I’m trying to get across.

      1. Excuse me if I’ve offended you that was not my intention. I reread the original article and yes her arguments “vehemently” protest holiday programming based on the issues of exclusion and expertise. I think the vehemently aspect is why the responses have been so riled. One of the best aspects of Public librarianship is the professional independence and community focus each library wields. Though I agree taking a hard look at certain practices nation wide is critical and necessary… for example black access to libraries in more recent history, children’s access to certain materials, bilingual materials, homeless families access to library services, etc.

        The focus of my thoughts/argument are on challenging the traditional way of considering holiday programming and should libraries be in the holiday programming bushiness? I am not vehemently considering one way or the other…but more of a why are we doing this and are there valid reasons to continue or not? I think there are valid reasons to discontinue the practice of santa in the library, pilgrim stories and crafts at thanksgiving, Easter bunnies and egg hunts in the spring, etc. But if a library/librarian chooses not to do so (not to exclude these practices and look for a neutral approach)…I believe they should do this only after deep consideration and the biggest view,of the reasons of why not to do so, as possible. Then consciously and respectful continue to review those reasons each time the seasons spiral through the year. Otherwise, they may be engaging in practices that do not support minority community members full participation in library services. Or, broadening services to be inclusive in new and exciting ways. For example FARM STAND STORY TIME: THANKS & GIVING rather than Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock (sturdyforcommonthings.com). If you are happy with the tried and true or even unaware of considering a different approach, chances are you do not explore other options. Perhaps this reflection provide a period where you gradually change your offerings until they reflect a more diverse approach but only because you have considered the issue and find validity in some of the arguments….Christmas with Santa programming turns into a workshop for gift making and joyful ways to support those with less….Anyway thank you for the opportunity to address these topics on your blog.

        1. No worries- you did not offend me. I just want to make sure it is clear what I am arguing. I think some people may read my post and go, “Yay I can still do Christmas at the library!” when in fact that’s not what I’m saying at all. But it is clear that Christmas and other Christian holidays like Easter are the picking bone for people who argue against holiday programming. And I can see why – those holidays are the ones that are most ubiquitous in North American culture. But I am challenging us to think outside that narrow box. If we say “no holiday programs at all” then we are also saying no to the holidays the “minority community members” celebrate (which is a whole other post I could write concerning our assumptions about what minority groups do or do not celebrate). Which is why I advocate for a community-led model – you work with community groups, with an emphasis on underrepresented groups, to engage them in programming and developing collections that are relevant to their needs. For me, it goes beyond just reflecting on what you offer – it extends to reflecting on how you work with your community. Thank you for adding your voice to this conversation – it’s great that we can engage in a respectful discourse.

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