12.22.2013

i hate christmas 2013: christmas in the public library

My annual I Hate Christmas post is a mixed bag this year.

Last year, I found Christmas less awful than usual, thanks to the absence of both commercial TV and my law-firm job. Those changes are permanent (at least I hope they are!), so I may never need to hide from Christmas quite as much, ever again.

On the other hand, Christmas at the public library is a grand opportunity for alienation. The decorations, the displays of children's Christmas books, the Christmas-themed storytimes... and everyone thinks it's all hunky-dory, as long as we stick to Santa and ignore Jesus. No crosses and no creche, but Santa's sleigh and Christmas music are everywhere.

How do our many Muslim and Hindi customers feel? Do they know they're not the only ones on the outside, looking in?

A colleague recently related how a customer asked if the library could do a Ramadan-themed storytime. My colleague was all in a huff. How inappropriate! Don't they know religion belongs at home? We are a public institution, we have separation of church and state! I said I wished that were true, and pointed out (or tried to) that the library does celebrate the holidays of one religion. She said she agrees that in our Christmas storytimes, we shouldn't use a lot of songs that mention Jesus. She said this without irony.

It seems that in this predominantly Christian country, the public consciousness makes a distinction between the religious Christmas and what is seen as a secular Christmas. Santa, elves, candy, and gifts are in; Jesus, Magi, and virgin births are out. But when you're not Christian, it's a false distinction. Christmas is a Christian holiday. And it doesn't matter that the form of the celebration has pagan roots. We're not celebrating solstice.

To my few colleagues (thankfully, not the majority) who are self-absorbed enough to recite the boring details on their shopping lists, I nod vaguely and make little pretence of caring. Perhaps they notice my blank expression, or how I'm not contributing to the "conversation" (really a monologue), and they ask if I'm celebrating Chanukah. One, Chanukah was in November this year, and two, Chanukah is a minor holiday. It's not "the Jewish Christmas", any more than Christmas is the Christian Yom Kippur.

In my vision of the public library, we'd celebrate winter and spring, not Christmas and Easter. We would acknowledge the most important dates of every major religion - Ramadan and Eid, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, Solstice, Visakha Puja, Gantan-sai, and more - with displays and good cheer, just as we acknowledge Halloween and Thanksgiving. But we'd leave Christmas at home with Christians, where it belongs.

11 comments:

johngoldfine said...



My school puts up some sort of 'holiday tree' with, I think, either dummy gifts or gifts for charity underneath.

I'd bitch to the Important People about the church/state breach, but I feel too sorry for the receptionist who puts the damn thing up--her tree is so twerpy and lame and institutional that I haven't the heart to pile on further.

Rachel Adelson said...

Does this bring back memories. Just one: At IBM in N.C. in the early '80s, a colleague commissioned a painting of an ornament-strewn Xmas tree for the site magazine cover. I looked at it pre-press and noticed a menorah hanging from the tree. I commented that menorahs are not typically Christmas-tree ornaments. Much discussion. 2 levels of management called in. On the spot sincere (it was IBM) questioning of the Jew: "Do you find this offensive?" "I can't speak for all Jews and it's not about me. It's simply not right: menorahs do not hang on Christmas trees and there is no such thing as a Chanukah bush." Correction made: the wire hanger was painted out. The magazine appeared with a small menorah floating in front of the festooned tree. The following fall, I started early in suggesting a seasonal, not holiday, theme for the December issue. Point was taken. Sometimes you have to laugh. If I had a dollar for all the times I was asked, "Have you finished your Christmas shopping?" My response, delivered with a benign smile, was "I don't do Christmas shopping." That usually did the trick. I'm so happy not to be pressured and stressed about these holidays. Though I was told by a public school official in N.C. that Santa was not a symbol of Christmas. Well gosh, who brings those Christmas presents...at Christmas...Hanukkah Harry?

laura k said...

If I had a dollar for all the times I was asked, "Have you finished your Christmas shopping?" My response, delivered with a benign smile, was "I don't do Christmas shopping." That usually did the trick.

Past tense? You don't get asked that anymore, in the GTA? Or maybe because you work at home, you don't have the onslaught.

It's still a constant for me, although I'm happy to have some non-Christian co-workers - and some non-consumerist co-workers - who don't ask!

deang said...

A friend of mine and her partner have recently adopted a teenage boy. The boy was raised Christian and expects to celebrate Christmas, or at least to have a tree. My friend's partner is Jewish, non-observant but still Jewish, and even Christmas trees remind her too much of the pogroms her Russian forebears fled Christian Europe to escape. Pointing out that the tree is pagan just doesn't seem to erase the fact of those pogroms. They've agreed to have a tree for the boy but it has been a difficult adjustment for my friend and her partner.

laura k said...

I'm sure adopting a teenager brings many challenges, some of them (like this, perhaps) unexpected!

I have known Jewish and Muslim people who have decorate trees and exchange gifts for Christmas. To me that's like a gay person bringing an opposite-sex daet to the prom to try to fit in. The pressure is very great, and we do what we must, but it's still sad.

johngoldfine said...

"The boy was raised Christian and expects to celebrate Christmas, or at least to have a tree. My friend's partner is Jewish, non-observant but still Jewish...."

I think it's the grown-ups who have to be flexible and make the compromises, especially in a situation as stressful as an adoption.

laura k said...

"I think it's the grown-ups who have to be flexible and make the compromises, especially in a situation as stressful as an adoption."

Absolutely, especially since it sounds like one adoptive parent is not Jewish. But even without that, you're right.

Amy said...

Hear, hear! You nailed it.

Or perhaps we should label this rant# 11? :)

laura k said...

Thanks, Amy! :) :)

Kristina H said...

In my vision of the public library, we'd celebrate winter and spring, not Christmas and Easter. We would acknowledge the most important dates of every major religion [...], and more - with displays and good cheer, just as we acknowledge Halloween and Thanksgiving.

I too dislike all the consumerism around this holiday and understand your sentiments. I just want to point out (and I'm sure you and your readers already know this) that Halloween is in fact a (Wiccan) religious holiday. As such, I don't understand why it is so widely celebrated/observed by non-Wiccans and hilighted in the public sector (schools and libraries).

laura k said...

Actually, I didn't know that about Halloween. I thought Halloween was a diluted, secular version of a Christian holiday, All Saints' Day or All Hallows' Eve. Where I grew up, most Christians were Catholic, and many families observed Halloween as a religious holiday.

I'm guessing it's a holy day in more than one faith?