Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Attack of the Grinch

A new correspondent writes:

I am a new department chair. The staff love to decorate for any and
all holidays. Recently they have put up the tree, tinsel and various
other baubles. One of my faculty members has objected to the
"religious" decorating. I am aware that the supreme court ruled that
the tree is not a religious symbol and the staff haven't put up angels
or anything of that sort. However, I am sympathetic to the complaint.
What would you do?

It's a great question, and I hate it.

I hate it because it's no-win, at least at a public institution. (Sectarian schools have an advantage here.) You're supposed to protect both free speech and free exercise of religion, but not 'establish' a religion. So what do you do when underlings decorate in ways that are obviously, if indirectly, related to a distinctly Christian holiday? Do you stifle their free expression to avoid seeming to endorse their view, or do you allow their free expression and seem indirectly to endorse it?

Yuck, yuck, yuck.

As far as I know, there's no graceful and elegant way around this one.* There are, though, some reasonably tolerable, slightly weaselly ways.

One is to keep out specifically religious content, and instead focus on winter themes. Snowflakes, snowmen, sleigh bells, etc. It snows on the just and the unjust alike, so focusing on snow and suchlike is pretty safe. (Of course, this works better in Northern climes. In, say, Los Angeles, I don't know how that would go over. "Let it smog, let it smog, let it smog?") "Jingle Bells" and "Let it Snow" are safer than, say, "Silent Night."

Or you can do the old 'big tent' approach, and lump Christmas in with Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, New Year's, and anything else you can find. (Bizarrely, nobody ever throws in Saturnalia.) This was the logic behind "Happy Holidays," before the Republicans declared that this was part of a secret liberal war on Christmas. Now some of them think themselves rebels for saying "Merry Christmas." I consider the 'war on Christmas' thesis bizarre, even by Republican standards, but I'll concede that the big tent approach is little more than a convenient compromise.

(Another variation of the big tent approach is to celebrate every little holiday that comes up all year long. Little groundhogs for Groundhog's Day, patriotic displays for the Fourth of July, etc. This would be fine if there wasn't work to do. Besides, there's always an argument. If you celebrate Christmas, why not Rosh Hashanah or Ramadan? If you celebrate St. Patrick's Day, why not Cinco de Mayo or Bastille Day? The tent will never be big enough.)

The Supreme Court has issued a mind-bending series of decisions on this sort of thing, generating much heat but little light. I don't put much stock in trying to parse every last decision, since the current Court doesn't seem overly concerned with precedent, and many of the 'tests' they use are pretty useless in practice. Besides, even if you correctly find the sweet spot in the existing decisions, there's nothing to keep the Court from issuing yet another decision just to complicate things. Lawyers live for that sort of thing. And I wouldn't trust something as sensitive as religion to a Court that could issue a decision like Bush vs. Gore.

Rather than spending my time on angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin exegesis of Court cases, I'd sit down and talk with the staffers. Remind them that the workplace is a diverse setting, including people of different faiths and no faiths at all, and that everybody -- including visitors -- has to feel welcome. And if that doesn't work, remind them that it's a workplace and not a church or a private home. It doesn't need to be sterile, but it can't be home away from home. That may seem cold to the true believers, but I prefer to think of it as something like fairness.

Some of them will think you're the Grinch, and will say so behind your back. Stand your ground. Some of us suspect that the best hope for lasting peace on earth and goodwill towards men and women starts with fairness.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found a graceful way to handle this?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

*"The Christians and the Pagans," by Dar Williams, comes close.

I'd put the challenge to the faculty to find symbols of all the winter holidays.... if they really are as religiously diverse as they claim, they'll at least have connections with people who can help them make the display more 'diverse'.
What strikes me is that this is a staff vs. faculty issue. That the "staff" (I'm assuming the support staff?) are "insensitive" and un-pc with their holiday cheer, while the faculty (or at least one faculty member) is so enlightened that he/she wants to end the practice. Here's the thing: faculty need a happy support staff, and if they like decorating, how exactly is it hurting this faculty member? If I were chair, I think that I would bring it up at a department meeting so that I didn't have to be the bad guy to either party, and if the whole faculty decides to Grinch out, well, then I suppose they can deal with the consequences of having unhappy support staff (and yet the support staff won't unilaterally blame you). If, on the other hand, you have an open discussion about it and the rest of the department tells the faculty member in question to lighten up, then it's a department decision - not an edict from the chair - and I suspect it will go over much better. This issue to me sounds like a manifestation of end-of-semester stress more than anything, but perhaps that's not terribly generous of me.
Completely off topic:

Is it just me, or do younger academic bloggers uniformly love Dar Williams?

(She is amazing, I'll just throw that out there.)
Having recently worked in residence life, I faced exactly this issue, with the added emotional weight of my employees working in the same residence hall that was also their home. Inevitably many of them would want to decorate the lobby with a Christmas tree, etc., at which point Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu employees would get upset. It didn't really help to lump all of the winter holidays together, because the truly important Jewish and Muslim holidays weren't celebrated in the winter, and so the effort was revealed to be the whitewashing that it was.

The best compromise we could come up with was to pick a couple of major holidays from each major religion (no, we'll never be able to cover them all) and do something celebratory for each at the time that it was being celebrated. Ramadan and Diwali and Yom Kippur in the fall, Christmas and Hannukah in the winter, and I-can't-remember-what in the spring. Once it became clear to residents and employees alike that we were trying to do the best we could to be inclusive, they all calmed down a little. It felt like the key was to be inclusive throughout the whole year, rather than just tacking on some minor, non-Christian holidays to disguise a Christmas celebration as something more ecumenical than it really is.
easter and passover come to mind for the spring...
For me this is about framing: I think anyone, faculty, staff, students, etc., are entitled to personal displays of religious celebration and affiliation. It becomes problematic when it appears that the institution is promoting a particular religious/spiritual belief system. So I think part of the problem is the "front office" setting. The front office represents the department and the institution. Faculty offices tend to more closely represent individual faculty members. Is there a way to display holiday/Christmas items such that they can be read as personal and not institutional?
For G's Sake (I am not very PC)
I am not Christian and I participate wholly and enthusiastically in the Holiday Celebrations! IT IS FUN!
I have been all over this issue... on every side over the course of my life. Now, as a good Jew, I just want to go caroling. Is that so wrong?
I've always had a hard time with this sort of thing, being an atheist who really doesn't get much out of rituals associated with holidays. My approach is mainly to not interfere unless things get really outrageous, and to politely excuse myself from holiday parties and the like.

However, a lot of people seem to magically forget the nonreligious exist around the winter holiday season. The "big tent" approach is patently unacceptable to me, as it gives people the misguided impression that they can make everyone feel equally welcome that way. You can't. Add more religions to the workplace and I feel more and more alienated. That's something most bosses don't give a damn about, I have come to realize, and I deal. But you should know it's there.

Like I said, I let it go most of the time in the interest of workplace harmony, and I advise fellow atheists to do the same, but please, give us secularists the occasional thought when all this is being discussed!
Some people will complain no matter what you do.

That should be a fortune cookie.

It even works if you add, "in bed."
It's not a solution, but all this makes me think is "gee, I wish he was my boss." Seriously.

All of our (Christian, mainstream) holidays are MANDATORY events, even when they happen on days off (like, say, the injunction to spend the 4th of July at the work event rather than with our own families, and the same for Christmas Eve). And the ones that happen during the workday don't have religious exceptions... we have a mandatory Trim A Tree event this Friday, where we all have to make ornaments and bring them and whatever. For the Christmas party, we've been explicitly instructed to dress up as "Whatever Christmas Means to You."

I'm Christian, so I can't claim that it's against my religion, but it rubs me entirely the wrong way. It's unprofessional, we're using public money (being, y'know, a non-profit with a lot of government grants), and although many staff enjoy it a lot, there's a significant population that finds it disturbing. (Especially the mandatory part.... if they were doing it, but allowed you to opt out if it didn't fit your belief system, that would be one thing... but you can't opt out for any reason.)

As it is, yesterday afternoon at our big monthly meeting, The Boss (President/CEO) announced that: “I know for some people it is against their religion to engage in gift giving events of this sort. We ask them to do it anyway, because this is family giving to family and that’s what we do.” I know he was using "against their religion" ironically, and implying that these people were grinches who didn't want to give, rather than people with actual religious objections, but if my hair wasn't already in an afro, it would've stood on its end, hearing that.

So, um... not a solution, just pointing out that it's possible to be completely unfair and arbitrary about it, even when such conduct is illegal and unprofessional, as long as your staff is more committed to their mission (and maintaining their benefits/paychecks) than with being treated respectfully.
One thing our dept. chair has done on issues like this when it's staff versus a faculty member is to point out to the faculty member how much the staff do and how little reward they get for it, i.e. if putting up some garland and lights makes the staff happy, it's in everyone's best interests to keep the staff happy!
For the Christmas party, we've been explicitly instructed to dress up as "Whatever Christmas Means to You."

Can you attend the party wearing nothing? :-)
bree has a great approach.

Separately, Christmas is a secular holiday in the US, little different from Thanksgiving. Both do, in fact, have religious holidays attached to them, but the Yule Tree was explicitly a pagan Winter Solstice thing before it got co-opted.

Neither the Winter Solstice nor a practice of giving presents are establishing a religion. I say this as an atheist.
For the Christmas party, we've been explicitly instructed to dress up as "Whatever Christmas Means to You."

I'd come as a Holiday Catalog.
It's a major problem in my office (which is in "let it smog" land) and I insist on snow and deer themes only. It's an argument I HATE having every year, and acknowledge that the snow is a little incongruous given our locale. Another thing grad school did not prepare me for.
i would like to cite jon stewart here, and point out that almost everyone celebrates the changing of the year in late december. so there is a genuine, secular, non-religious holiday that is to some level shared by most or all. [heathen, do you agree?] so, in addition to the winter themes, what about some new year's theming?

i'm a christian of a sort...but my particular branch goes out of their way not to make too big a religious deal out of christmas. i've got a chocolate advent calendar on my apartment wall anyway.
Magniloquence, I hope someone in your organization has the cojones (or whatever) to confront the boss, etc. with this horrific behavior. If you have a decent HR person, who can keep confidentiality, it'd be worth talking with them personally. Same if you have a good relationship with a board member. This is the sort of thing that no one should have to put up with, and it burns me up to see it in a non-profit.

If nothing else, remind the HR/board person that this kind of behavior opens them up to lawsuits, and someone, eventually, is going to have a strong enough objection. (I can visualize a Jehovah's Witness I used to work with a long time ago going utterly ballistic.) And that's bad publicity, and most non-profits run in part on their public reputation.

I spent 6 years at the start of my career in a couple of non-profits, and it just burns me up to see them treat their employees like crap. (I have some hair-raising stories, too.) Good luck.
Oh, and as for me & Christmas: I've taken to telling people that I celebrate like the Japanese do, enthusiastically but without any religious meaning. I'm an atheist, but I love the trappings of Christmas.
You know, the default of Christmas and the attitude that, if you aren't celebrating, there's something wrong with you, gets to me. The wrapping of Hannukah up in Christmas trappings gets to me. The staff parties that force people to choose between their own celebrations or lack thereof, and spending time with people they actually would like to spend time with, gets to me. The commercialization of Christmas really gets to me, too, because I think that, as Christmas becomes more and more secular and commercialized, there is more pressure on people of other faiths to 'just go along with it.' Christmas may not mean all that much to everybody, but it seems to me that, if Christmas is the secular default holiday, it not only takes away from the religious meaning for Christians, but demeans the beliefs of others as well.
Unlike Mr. Stewart, I celebrate the New Year in February (usually). The Year of the Rat will start Feb 7, 2008, for example.
Heh, Elaine, we don't have a Human Resources department at all. We have an Administrative Director (in the Boss's pocket, the head of the Holiday Committee, and source of a lot of these bad ideas, if not the winceworthy announcements), and a Fiscal department to handle the money. Nobody deals with HR issues except hiring, and that's a total mess. There's no one to complain to on the board, and the only Board member awake enough to listen is the Baptist Minister who offers prayers at all of our events.

That said, I think compromising with a "winter theme" is a good answer. Trees are wintry, candles are wintry, deer are wintry, and they're themes shared throughout most major religions from areas with similar climate patterns. Especially if you also do harvest for the fall, abundance and new life for the spring, and ... sun? for the summer. Those are all easy to tie into prominent religious calendars without having to actually do anything explicit, and give the nonbelievers something fun to do too.
The attacks on Christmas are not "secret" any longer, it's just that there's some pushback now. How odd that you would simultaneously claim that there are no such attacks going on and then proceed to make one yourself!

Also, contrary to your casual slur, the current Supreme Court is far *more* deferential to precedent that has been true in the past. Are you under the impression that the Warren Court was a slave to precedent? Were that true, we wouldn't have the Miranda warnings now, would we? I'm confident that all of the Supreme Court decisions of the past 30 years that you personally approve of--Roe v. Wade for example--were decisions that ignored or explicitly reversed prior court decisions.
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