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.


On Chivalry (or as I like to call it, Sexist Microaggressions)

For the most part, I do not encounter active, conscious sexism on a regular basis. Most people will acquiesce that social equality is a pretty good idea. It’s rare for me to encounter folks (especially in my age group) who voice or act on obvious and explicit sexist attitudes.

But I still experience sexism all the damn time. Which means it’s the nasty, hidden, pervasive kind. The kind that perpetrators (and victims) usually don’t recognize, name, or give credence to. Now, I’m grateful that I don’t have people explicitly telling me that I’m intellectually inferior because of my womanness. The problem is that they unwittingly act out those attitudes, and when I point it out, I usually get treated like I’m irrational and hysterical. Note: Some people do actually REALLY get it and I tend to cling to those people like little life savers in the high seas of sexism.

I often have the experience of explaining that I am a feminist and  that social equity is very important to me. Men (particularly men who have some type of potential romantic interest in me), will frequently respond by affirming their approval of gender equity and then, IN THE SAME BREATH, will say something patently sexist.

It goes like this:

Me: “I’m a feminist and social justice advocate. Social equity is really important to me and social justice education is one of my passions.”

Man: “Yeah, that’s cool. Equality is great. I totally believe in that. As long as you’re okay with me holding doors for you/me paying for your dinner/taking a guy’s name when you get married/you shave your armpits/ you are not always talking about feminist stuff.”

What I hear: “I don’t know what feminism is. I’m going to tell you that it’s okay so I don’t look like an asshole, but I still expect you to submit to small acts of condescension and injustice in your daily life so I don’t have to be made uncomfortable with reckoning with you as my true social, economic, and intellectual equal and so I can feel like I’m a good guy.”

Many of these acts that annoy the living hell out of me are commonly referred to as “chivalry.” Some of you may be familiar with the concept because some men frequently like to proclaim that it is not dead. In my opinion, chivalry equates to microaggressions: small acts of condescension, steeped in implicit and explicit assumptions that women are delicate, incapable, and need to be tended to.

I consistently experience significant backlash when calling attention to the fact that I find these actions to be sexist. The common response is that men are “just trying to be nice.” I am all about acts of kindness, generosity, and goodwill. However, it is naive and, more importantly, privileged, to ignore the fact that insistence upon door holding, chair pulling-out, bill-paying, name-changing, asking for hands in marriage, and guiding women toward the inside of the sidewalk are all steeped in a socio-cultural history that is based in the idea that women are biologically, intellectually, socially, and economically inferior to men. A history in which women were treated as property. A history in which you asked to marry a woman because you were basically buying her. A history in which women couldn’t pay for things because we were not permitted to work outside of the home, hold bank accounts, or own property. A history in which women were seen as being physically and biologically inferior, in which our brains and bodies were believed to be less than those of men. A history in which my sisters chained themselves to the front gates of the White House and went on hunger strikes for the right to have their voices heard in the democratic process of this nation.

I am an independent, educated woman. Make no mistake that my success has been earned on the backs of women who came before me and fought for equality. My own grandmother was pulled out of school at age 13 to work in a thread factory, financially supporting a family in which the boys were encouraged to continue their education and earn college degrees. So you’ll have to excuse me when I insist on paying for my own panini on a first date. Because I do not take for granted for a single day that I am financially independent. You’ll have to excuse me when I exercise my rights as a citizen to openly talk about politics and social issues that are important and impact me, because it is not lost on me for a moment that I have the right to vote and still see far too few women in elected positions of leadership. And you’ll have to excuse me if I think I can open a door for myself or sit my dainty behind in a chair without having a fainting spell.

Men of the world, if you want to be nice, genuine, or kind, stop relying on outdated social conventions rooted in assumptions of women’s inferiority. If you want to be kind, talk to me, listen to what I have to say, take an interest in my interests, defend my opinions instead of my honor, and do your part to ensure that I and other women have access, opportunities, and equal treatment in our society.  When you hold a door, actively interrogate why you are holding that door and who you are holding it for. I’m not saying to start slamming doors in women’s faces, but kindness means taking an extra moment to go out of your way for everyone and anyone, in a way that does not suggest that you are exerting power or control over someone, that you are the keeper of the door. Men have decided for far too long which doors women get to have opened for us. We can open them ourselves.