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Walk The Line: Religious Holidays and Children’s Programming

Every year, as the autumn chill settles in the air, librarians everywhere begin anew the endless debate over the recognition of religious holidays in our public libraries. Since public libraries (like public universities or public schools) are technically government funded, their activities are limited by the provisions of the U.S. Constitution. In the case of issues surrounding religious holidays, the limiting provision is called the Establishment Clause, in which the government is forbidden from “an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (U.S. Const. amend. 1). These ten words have been some of the most controversial in American history, and far be it for us to discuss all the aspects of that here, but the essential part to know is this: as a public institution, we are obligated to walk the narrow path of neither encouraging nor discouraging any one religion.(1)

The reality is that the relationship between government and religion (specifically, Christianity) in our country is a complicated one and the courts have not created any bright line tests prohibiting the use of certain religious references in government work, such as the famous ‘In God We Trust’ debacle (somewhat ironically featured in the 1994 remake of the Christmas film Miracle on 34th Street). Since staying on the right side of this issue can become rather a minefield, it seems best to avoid complicating the matter by offering programming that may make some patrons feel that we are preferring one religion over another.

Librarian and blogger Abby Johnson recommends that, instead of approaching the tricky issue of winter programming with a blanket rule for or against religiously-tinged programming, you utilize holiday season planning to think about your community: what you plan to offer and why your patrons would benefit from that specific offering. Johnson suggests that libraries with an excessive amount of redundant religious holiday programming consider “transitioning to programming that celebrates winter, snow, cooking, love, or families.”

To paraphrase Kendra Jones from Storytime Underground, though, Christmas is simply not a holiday that we need to improve access to. In that case, the question then becomes, is it necessary or important for us to improve access to other winter holidays, or is it best to avoid programming and décor that calls attention to the so-called holiday season? Her categorical answer is no. In “Ditch Holiday Programming,” Ms. Jones cautions that, since we are unlikely to be able to provide breadth and depth of instruction on each particular holiday, and since we do not engage in this cultural education at length throughout the year, we risk oversimplifying the meaning of religious events that we do not understand and offending practitioners of those religions. Additionally, including Christmas crafts or activities that some children may not be able to participate in due to their religious observances is deeply marginalizing for those children. Her recommendation is to avoid “holiday” planning altogether and focus instead on winter themes for décor and programming.

The ALA’s Religion in American Libraries Q&A puts this in plain language for us: “Library workers in public libraries, in public schools, and in publicly funded college or university libraries should not give the appearance of favoring any one religion or even religion in general.” Beware, however: If we steer, out of an abundance of caution, too far into that current, we may become caught in the mire of engaging in what is known as viewpoint discrimination, which applies when a government entity is seen as rejecting religious speech in favor of non-religious speech. This discussion, however, is out of the scope of this blog post and nothing to worry excessively about in these long winter nights: perhaps we shall shelve it for a different blog post on another day. Thank you for your engagement on this topic, stay warm this season, and enjoy the beauty of winter for its ability to bring family close before the hearth, no matter whether or what you celebrate.

(1) We must continue to walk this important and narrow path in order to serve our patrons as best we can under ALSC Competencies I(1): Commitment to Client Group, which requires that an ALSC librarian “demonstrates respect for diversity and inclusion of cultural values, and continually develops cultural awareness and works to address implicit bias in order to provide inclusive and equitable service to diverse populations.”

REFERENCES


Intellectual Freedom Committee. (revised 2020). Religion in American Libraries. American Library Association. https://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/religionqa


ALSC Education Committee. (approved 2020). Competencies for Librarians Serving Children in Libraries. Association for Library Service to Children: A Division of the American Library Association. https://www.ala.org/alsc/edcareeers/alsccorecomps


Johnson, A. (2016, November 1). ’Tis The Season… To Think Critically About Holiday Programming. American Libraries Magazine. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2016/11/01/tis-the-season-holiday-programming/


Jones, K. (2014, November 24). Ditch Holiday Programming. School Library Journal. https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=ditch-holiday-programming-opinion

Alex Aspiazu is posting this blog entry on behalf of the Public Awareness and Advocacy Committee. Alex is a children’s library assistant in the DC area and, simultaneously, an MSLIS candidate and Spectrum Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Go ahead and send her an email at alexaspiazu@gmail.com, she loves receiving thoughtful correspondence.

2 comments

  1. Chelsey

    It really saddens me how difficult it is to get an administration to go along with this if they’re already pro-Christmas. Every library I’ve ever worked for has insisted that Santa Claus isn’t religious, that reading Christmas books at a regular storytime isn’t a problem because patrons can just leave, that red and green garland isn’t Christmas-specific. Those of us who don’t celebrate Christmas know that these are all specific to just one religion, however, and it ostracizes non-Christian patrons in a time where we preach so much diversity and inclusion.

  2. Kate

    Some sort of cognitive dissonance going on the ALSC blog in December:
    Post on Dec 25th: Passive Programming featuring the “Merry Manual” and “holiday book and movie bundles.”
    Post on Dec. 30th: Walk the Line: Religious Holidays and Children’s Programming – Holiday programming? Don’t do it.

    Personally, I fall on the “don’t do holiday programming” side, but I had to comment on the two blog posts so close together.

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