♪Tis the season to perpetuate oppression ♪
You may be thinking, “silly blog writer forgot the words to ‘Deck the Halls’, but trust me – my lyrics accurately sum up the December experience for many folks.
As an educator, I write this to speak to other educators (particularly those in higher education), but my words should hold true to most environments.
December is a magical time for many, be it the celebration of the holidays or just a winter break from school. However, many staff and faculty members – as well as the institution itself – often (un)intentionally harm students by their cultural/religious emphasis on Christmas
Who are the students who may be harmed by the campuses that normalize the Christmas holiday and don’t make space for others?
- Any student who is not Christian/doesn’t celebrate Christmas. In particular, our Jewish and Muslim students, who represent the two major world religions that are practiced in the U.S. after Christianity, experience disregard for their own major holidays yet have to experience Christian hegemony. Indeed, this has been a tough year for these groups, given the rise of White Supremacy/Nazi movements that are pro ‘Christian’ (which couldn’t be furthest from the truth and anyone worshiping a middle eastern Jewish man that loved foreigners and the poor should get His name out of their mouth when they act like this) and is decidedly anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-People of Color, and, well, basically most folks), the “Muslim Ban” of the Trump Administration that the Supreme Court just allowed this week to take effect. Additionally, our students who are pushed even farther to the margins for their religious beliefs because they are not of the Abrahamic faiths (Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Pagans, and more), must also experience a country that prizes only one religion on a societal/institutional level. Then there are even students who do fall under the umbrella of Christianity but may not celebrate Christmas, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
- Related: Consider your international students, especially, who may come from countries where there is a different majority religion. How may they experience the month of December at your institution?
- There are many December holidays other than Christmas! Some of these may rotate throughout the year based on moon cycles, but Princeton University has a pretty good comprehensive list for this academic year.
- Any student who is Atheist or Agnostic. According to Pew’s Religious Landscape Study, 22.8% of Americans are unaffiliated in regards to religion – 3.1% identify as atheist, 4% as agnostic, and 15.8% don’t believe in anything in particular. If you visit their page and scroll down, you can click on your state to view a breakdown of religious beliefs to better understand the religious make-up of your institution.
- Any student who doesn’t experience the societal standard for Christmas. Society, through media, education, politics, and the local community, tell us that everyone who does celebrate Christmas, does so like they’re in a 1950s Norman Rockwell painting. There’s a happy dad, happy mom, couple kids, a dog, a nice middle-class home, piles of presents, and a giant ham/turkey for dinner. Ummmm, yeah. We need to remember:
- Not all students have two parents. Students who have lost a parent (or both) or never grew up with parents (instead maybe other caregivers or relatives) don’t fit into society’s Christmas family. In fact, it can be very difficult, speaking as someone whose dad died in August 2013, to deal with holidays.
- Not all students have money to buy or receive presents. There are some families experiencing poverty who may get charity help to give presents to children and teenage children, but once a child turns 18 they are “cut off” and don’t count. Maybe there is a savings for presents, but the fridge breaks. Families may just give a couple presents, but not that bucketful that other privilege folks get and definitely nothing fancy like a new electronic.
- Not all families are happy. There is drug and alcohol addiction, abuse, illegal activity, and more that students may have to experience when they go home – if they choose to go home. Personally, as a college student I limited the time I spent home during winter break to protect my own metal health.
- Not all students can go home to their families. Not all students may have a family – maybe their families have passed away or weren’t there to begin with. Remember that some LGBTQ+ folks may have cut off ties (or someone cut them off) from their family or going home just isn’t safe – see this great 2016 The Root article for more on this. Tied into the item above, there are many reasons why it may be unsafe for a student to return home.
- Any student who has strict Christian beliefs. Surprisingly, it is rare for people to understand that Christmas celebrations have their roots in pagan traditions of Europe. The Roman Christians were cunning. In order to convert the pagans (a general term; depending on the region folks worshiped different deities in various pantheons) they incorporated pagan celebrations into Christian traditions. This maneuver successfully converted people to Christianity (well, that alongside other good and not-so-good tactics). Therefore, there are many Christians who strictly believe that engaging in societal traditions is an affront to God.
Questions to Reconsider Asking (especially if you barely know the person):
- What are you doing for Christmas? Or: What are you doing for the holidays?
- Instead: “What are you doing over winter break?”
- What did you get for Christmas?
- Instead: Just don’t. Not everyone celebrates Christmas, and even so, not everyone may get presents. We can’t all be Dudley.
- Are you going home for the holidays?
- Instead: “What are you doing over winter break?” YUP, that’s the first recommendation on this list to say. But remember, not all people can go home or want to go home or even have a home – if you don’t know someone’s story, don’t ask this. When you ask this question, you can make the other person feel shame for not fitting into a societal standard for what a good person does.
- Did you have a good holiday?
- SUCH A LOADED QUESTION. Let’s say folks do celebrate a holiday and you know they do. You should still refrain from conditioning the quality of their holiday in terms of “good” which means if it is not good, it is bad. There’s huge pressure that gets placed on folks who don’t experience a white picket fence holiday situation.
- Instead: “How was your holiday?” This is better, because it is more open to interpretation.
Things to Stop Doing (especially at a public institution):
- Putting Christmas trees in your office, or tinsel, ornaments, mangers, etc. Your office (yours or the department’s) represents you and it informs students who you are. Are you someone who just cares about people celebrating Christmas? How you decorate let’s students know if they are someone you can trust. And yes, there are many folks who don’t celebrate Christmas that enjoy the festive decorations of the holiday. So feel free to use context based on who you are working with and students who are in your office.
- Christmas gift exchanges. LOTS of folks like gifts regardless of religious beliefs, so if you want to do this, consider taking out the religious aspects (“secret Santa”, “Christmas Exchange”) because yay prezzies.
- Forcing staff to take paid time off during the holidays. It is one thing if your institution gives full-time staff a full week or multiple weeks off because the university is closed during winter break. It is another thing to encourage – or even bully – staff to use their vacation days the same day as everyone else because maybe the office is formally closed or the staff’s supervisor won’t be there to watch them. If you expect your staff to not work during the holidays, you cannot make them use their vacation days. It is actually illegal to do this if the person is exempt status – see Ask A Manager.
Things to Start Doing:
- Recognize other religious beliefs throughout the year. If you are going to go hard on Christmas, Ramadan (Islam) lasts a full month so you have more than enough time to recognize this major holiday that commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad and a time period of seeking God (Time Magazine has a good article with different perspectives).
- Learn about other other beliefs, as well as the differences within atheism and agnosticism.
- Approve time-off for student workers and full-time employees who want time off to recognize their own religious holidays. Don’t make them feel like a burden for taking time off, when (if you celebrate Christmas) your main holiday is recognized by the federal government as a paid day off.
Please be conscious that not everyone lives in a Norman Rockwell painting. This is a time of year that can be very difficult for people due to a number of different reasons, or even just mildly uncomfortable. If everyone you work with and all your students practice Christmas (and you’ve asked), that makes a difference in how you talk and decorate. But if you are not sure and you have not asked your co-workers and students, be considerate.
If you have other recommendations for inclusion, feel free to write in a comment or tweet me: @NikiMessmore