Merry Christmas on Campus: A Real, Live Case Study

The University of Maine is apparently trying to ruin Christmas. 

I woke up this morning to an onslaught of Facebook vitriol from my fellow Black Bears following some questionable and sensationalized reporting from WABI news that the university was forbidding holiday decorations and had, in fact, taken all of the holiday decorations down after an email was sent to staff instructing them to remove them. So this is obviously the biggest issue facing UMaine alumni right now (not state-sanctioned torture and human rights violations, or police brutality, or the pervasiveness of institutional racism, or anything else at all…) But I digress; let’s proceed with our analysis.

WABI informed us that the email went out and then all of the Christmas trees that Alpha Tau Omega fraternity had put up for their yearly philanthropic fundraiser were suddenly gone. That all of the decorations on campus disappeared.  The way they, and many subsequent sharers, painted it, you would think that President Susan Hunter herself had sent out a message to the university forbidding any holiday decorations anywhere, personally knocked over each happy little Christmas tree in the Memorial Union, ripped up all of your Christmas cards, and set fire to every cookie in the dining hall in a fit of Grinch-like rage, surrounded by the swirling fumes of burning sugar and broken dreams. I don’t think that WABI did a very thorough job of actually investigating this matter before airing it, but I don’t know that journalistic ethics or decent reporting in general are really the forte of this particular local news outlet.

Of course, what actually happened is that the Assistant Vice President for Auxiliary Services, Dan Stirrup, sent an email to his staff (the folks who work in Dining Services, Housing, the Bookstore, etc), reminding them that winter decorations are okay, but holiday-specific decorations are not okay. His email read thusly:

Just wanted to remind everyone that Auxiliary Services is not to decorate any public areas with Christmas or any other religious themed decorations. Winter holiday decorations are fine but we need to not display any decoration that could be perceived as religious.

This includes xmas trees, wreaths, xmas presents, candy canes, etc.

What is allowed are winter themes, plain trees without presents underneath, decorative lights, but not on trees, snow flakes, etc.

If you are unsure, best to not use or ask me for clarification.

Regarding the removal of the ATO Christmas trees, their philanthropy event had concluded and so they took the trees down. Kudos to UMaine student organizations for collecting a bunch of food items for a local shelter. Way to go.

So here’s my thoughts on this email and the actual implications of it.

Within this email is a very, very broad interpretation of what “religious” means. I do think that this is one place in which Stirrup misstepped a bit. Legal interpretations of the establishment clause of the First Amendment (the part that tells us that the government can’t establish a religion) for public (aka government) institutions such as public universities generally consider secular items such as trees, wreaths, gifts, candy, etc to not be religious symbols. Putting up a nativity scene next to the card swipe station at York Dining Commons? That’s gonna be a religious display. Better not do that. But in a strictly legal sense, in terms of what a public university is allowed to do, putting up a wreath is legally protected. Just don’t put a giant cross in the middle of the wreath (catch my drift, here?)

Of course, there’s a big difference between what a university can do and what a university should do. So let’s dissect some of the cultural and climate-related implications of holiday decorations.

One of the common arguments that I have seen in response to this situation is that instead of taking down Christmas decorations, we should just put up decorations for everyone’s religions! Celebrate diversity! Now, I love me some celebration of diversity, but not when it’s done in a privileged, Christian-centric way with the implicit goal of allowing the dominant group to feel good about keeping their dominant holiday decor up. What do I mean by this? Well, for starters, it doesn’t really make sense to celebrate the significant holidays of all world religions at the end of December. Hanukkah is in December, but the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Passover are generally considered to be more significant and meaningful. The important Muslim holiday of Eid, which is at the conclusion of Ramadan, was at the end of July this year. The Hindu festival of Diwali is in October. The most important Buddhist festival, Vesak, is in May. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate holidays. So putting up a bunch of other religious artifacts next to your Christmas display doesn’t really meet the goal of promoting religious diversity and inter-faith exploration. It promotes you feeling politically correct about putting up your Christmas display. Political correctness is not the same thing as true understanding and dialogue. Other religions should not be treated as a cute accessory to the dominant religion. So if you are a proponent of the “celebrate diversity” stance, let’s please do it in a non-appropriative, humble, and authentic way. And if you’re not willing to fight the fight for inter-faith dialogue all year long, please examine your motivations.

Although I think that Stirrup misinterprets, in his email, the legal definition of what are actually religious artifacts, I believe that it is important to consider the impact of the secular symbols of Christmas on implicitly and explicitly supporting the assumption of a Christian-normative climate on campus. We know what a Christmas tree looks like. It’s different from a non-Christmas tree. We recognize a Christmas wreath when we see it. When we see wrapped presents under that Christmas tree, we know that they are Christmas presents. They aren’t birthday presents, or baby shower gifts, they are Christmas presents. During December, the symbols of Christmas are ubiquitous. The secular decor that indicates the dominance of the most important Christian holiday is everywhere, continuously asserting the supremacy of mainstream Christian belief in an endless cacophony of jingle bells, holiday hymns, and boughs of holly.

Let me take a moment to personally state that I really like Christmas, a lot. I look forward all year to this outpouring of holiday cheer that reminds me of wonderful childhood memories, supports the belief system of my entire family, and gives me a reason to put up a bunch of decorations. And that, my friends, is called privilege. So although the directive to use holiday decorations that are winter-themed instead of secular-Christmas-themed, and to not wish patrons a “Merry Christmas” is not legally required of a public university, I think that it is an inclusive stance that minimizes the microaggressions that non-Christians experience in their place of learning, work, and living. When you are a member of the dominant religious group (ie. Christian-identified) and someone wishes you a “Merry Christmas” at the bookstore or you spend your dinnertime sitting next to a display of Christmas baubles and gifts at the dining commons, you are entirely comfortable and pleased as punch because your belief system is being explicitly upheld by the symbols around you. When you are a member of the non-dominant religious group (ie. non-Christian-identified) and someone wishes you a “Merry Christmas”, you may not feel so kindly or welcomed (when was the last time they started wishing people a “shabbat shalom” at the bookstore?)

For Christians, is it so important to us to see the symbols of our religion and experience represented everywhere that we are willing to lose our shit over a more neutral stance that is not exclusive of people who have other beliefs? No one is coming into your living room to rip your tree out of its stand. No one is coming into your residence hall room to steal your Christmas pillow off of your twin bed. You are not going to lose one ounce of your ability to freely practice and enjoy the crap out of Christmas when the dining hall decorates with snowflakes instead of Christmas wreaths. So please recognize your outrage for what it is: privilege.

So keep on keeping on with the snowflakes, UMaine. Because if there’s any true shared experience in Maine at the end of December, it’s those snowflakes.