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Crankypants Monday

badsanta1-620x330Interesting discussion about holiday library programming over at SLJ. I have two questions.

First, as is so often true when we are talking “on behalf” of children, I want to know if Santa-in-the-library is genuinely offensive to non-Santa people, or is this a case of one party being offended in advance on behalf of another? Without even asking.

Second, where would you draw the line? Some conservative Christians, for example, have taken exception to Harry Potter. Does that mean no Harry Potter programming? Taking into account cultures and/or parents that frown on dating (let alone pre-marital sex), do we decide to forgo booklists or reading club discussion of YA romances? And you might as well jettison any and all folk material from story hour for fear of offending animal rights people, animals-don’t-talk people, anti-princess people, and purist people who want to make sure LRRH ends up in the wolf’s belly. Commenters over at SLJ have pointed out that the American holiday that does not piss somebody off simply doesn’t exist, and I would add that if you decide to decorate for nothing more than the seasonal changes you are still opening yourself up to accusations of paganism, Darwinism, and/or climate change denial/hysteria. Because this is America and this is how Americans are these days.

None of this is to justify your Christmas decorations on the grounds of “majority.” Because this is a library, where we say fuck the majority and try to do the best we can for as many people as possible. So celebrate everything: better the risk of your bulletin boards and story hours going over the top than the deadly peace of guaranteed non-offence.


Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. To make sure nobody gets offended, I think libraries shouldn’t show any movie. Or provide any book.

  2. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    That IS the logical conclusion–while the article was about programming (specifically decorations), in any good library the collection and the programming are always working together.

  3. Problem is Roger you can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim we’re a secular democracy and still favor one group’s beliefs over the rest even if they’re a majority.

    I am the kind of parent who sighs when I see a Santa. Mostly because of my own experience of being forced in grade one to write a letter to him even though I told the teacher I didn’t believe in him. When I actually received a reply with my name spelled correctly (when the teachers always struggled with it!) I actually was tricked into believing I’d receive presents.

    I’m the parent who did recuse my children from Santa activities at school and yet insisted they attend public school so they’d learn to get along with everyone.

    If I see a Santa in a library I’ll just roll my eyes and walk past. I’d prefer a nativity scene with my kids or grandkids because then at least we can have a discussion of beliefs and I can compare the Muslim story of Jesus’s bitty with the Christian version.

    But Santa, he’s just insidious.

    All the best,


  4. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    He certainly is everywhere! I would encourage libraries everywhere to mix it up however they can.

  5. Well it’s interesting that. I’m actually doing a residency in a library and during some of my workshops I came across Christian refugees from Iraq and Egypt who found some of my comments offensive. Especially when I said I was using story to try and humanize Muslims and show we’re not barbarians. The Egyptian Copt found that offensive, so you’re bound to offend someone.

  6. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Surely there is some middle ground between flippant disregard for others’ sensibilities and the calculation of every last micro-aggression. Eye-rolling does come in handy on both sides.

  7. Yeah it’s getting quite ridiculous isn’t it? But it did teach me to be more careful of what I say in public venues when dealing with adults. We tend to think teachers are more sensitive and yet I’d made the same remarks in schools and had never had a complaint.

  8. Another answer to the Santa question: growing up in a small town in Vermont, where there were only a couple of other Jewish kids at my school, the overt Christmas activities were definitely uncomfortable (not offensive.) Usually just kept quiet, but I can still remember a time I pointed out to the teacher that I was Jewish, and she asked me to stand in front of the class and explain my holiday celebrations to everybody. Was teased about it for weeks afterwards– and the experience tied in with other experiences of anti-Semitism growing up in that town. After we moved to Brookline, though, with its large Jewish population, I didn’t have the same feelings about Christmas symbols at school or in other public spaces. There wasn’t the same sense of being erased, and there weren’t messages coming along with them that who I was wasn’t “normal.” (Now we have a tree in my own house, and I wrap the presents from Santa for my nephews.) I imagine kids from more observant households would have different experiences, too.

  9. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Sarah, I was at my high school reunion this weekend and saw the one Jewish kid (that anyone knew about) from my class. I remember when it got around that her family even used “special” (kosher) toothpaste. I also remember the one Chinese-American girl being asked, by a teacher, to tell the class about differences in skin color between Asians and whites. (Asked and answered good-humoredly, which maybe is worse?) I wonder how we can make kids feel included in all their all-ness, if that makes any sense. Like, how can we acknowledge that while you might not be like most of the other kids in town, you still belong here? I can see where a library might find downplaying ANY cultural display attractive, giving readers a neutral space, but I worry about the risk that poses for both library services and collections.

  10. Need it be framed as a “risk” to services and collections? Isn’t it also an opportunity to make good on statements about inclusivity and diversity?

    I read the calls for balance in the collection to mean something like this:
    If a library has 5 copies of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE and 5 copies of CADDIE, then to balance the voice and POV in those books, maybe the library needs 10 copies of BIRCH BARK HOUSE.

  11. Yikes.

    No easy answers here, either, and I understand the reluctance to impose one-size-fits-all policies, and the impossibility of getting to a place on either end that’s actually “neutral”. The choice not to design programming specific to a religious holiday doesn’t feel too Draconian to me, though– and maybe if those choices are coming from a place of responsiveness, this leaves more space for nuance? It’s just difficult when staff may have their own blind spots (like the teachers above) and when there are patrons whose sensibilities (prejudice; calls for censorship) really can’t be accommodated. Appreciate that people are having the conversation.

  12. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Debbie, libraries stopped talking about “balanced” collections a long time ago, and, rather, began developing collections that included “diverse viewpoints.” So you wouldn’t have Birchbark House BECAUSE you had Little House, you would simply have them both, in numbers that made sense for the population you were serving.

  13. Balanced was a wrong word choice on my part. My words were clumsy.

    What I mean is that you characterized the efforts to reframe programming as a risk to service and collections. You worry about a risk; I celebrate at a possibility.

    Can you say more about the risk part?

  14. Rebecca Hachmyer says:

    I haven’t read the SLJ discussion yet (headed there next) but I faced a similar situation in my classroom and came to the conclusion that we would not celebrate holidays and instead have an emergent curriculum that celebrated the children and their various interests and ideas. So maybe libraries can simply find ways through programs to celebrate the books?

  15. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Debbie, I say “risk” because the discussion is about NOT doing things, not about adding to what’s already being done. Let’s say a library decided to eliminate Thanksgiving programming and decorations because they didn’t want to offend, well, you. 😉 But they are not going to replace those decorations with ones celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day, because that action would alienate people, too, and the goal here is to make people feel comfortable (at all costs, I add, wondering when this became the library’s mission!). But if by “possibility” you mean enlarging library programming around Thanksgiving to give people a fuller picture of what the holiday means (and doesn’t mean) to different people, then i’m with you.

  16. Malkah Livneh says:

    Yes, Santa-in-the-library is genuinely offensive to non-Santa people!

  17. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    How so? I mean, what specifically offends you, and how do you think the library should respond to your viewpoint?

  18. Jane Dorfman says:

    As a mother, as well as a librarian, it was always so nice to be able to go into one Christmas-free zone.
    Fellow librarians try to do bulletin boards or storytimes with Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza, though sometimes Hannukah is long over before Christmas is near. I put out the holiday books but prefer to just do winter.

  19. Claire Gross says:

    To answer the original question, I suppose I wasn’t exactly offended as a child when I had to, say, sing Christmas carols in the school choir, more quietly resigned to my own otherness and cynical about the school’s motives in tossing the dreidel song in with five other songs about Jesus. It wasn’t a great feeling, certainly not one I want my library practices to impart to another child. I understand that people are excited, and if you celebrate Christmas, it probably feels like the whole world is celebrating with you, and it probably feels like a much more universal, “neutral” holiday than it is. But it’s not. I’m fine with seasonal displays in my library with snow, pine trees, etc., and a variety of books celebrating a variety of winter holidays (plus some generic winter books, because, let’s remember, not all religions have December holidays, and not all people are religious). It’s not perfect — it’s not like the publishing landscape offers a perfectly even diversity of holiday representations for us to choose from — but it at least acknowledges diversity without putting any particular holiday at the center. (And yes, I do display various holiday books year round — otherwise they would never circulate!) But I will not do programming or storytimes around religious holidays, for most of the reasons outlined in the article.

    I do think Santa in the library is offensive, but to me that is a side issue. The language of offense is tied to library philosophies around intellectual freedom and censorship, as is your post, Roger, and I don’t see this as a censorship issue. There are plenty of resources, books and movies, flyers for community celebrations, music, etc., available through the library for people who want to celebrate as individuals, families, or communities. We are not curtailing anyone’s access to information, or their ability to celebrate as they wish. I’m not kicking anyone out of the library for wearing a Santa hat, or telling them they can’t use the self-directed craft program to make a Kwanzaa card. What I worry about instead of offense is alienation. I worry about someone leaving my library with the idea that it is not THEIR library. The issue for me is not the library purchasing or displaying materials on a particular viewpoint, the issue is the library ENDORSING a particular viewpoint, and by doing so placing itself in opposition to others.

    Thanks for a great discussion!

  20. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I don’t see it as a censorship issue either, Claire, but while I get impatient with slippery slope arguments, I do think that the secularization of library displays and programming can open a library to more problems than offending or alienating patrons. *You* want Santa out; I’ve also known Evangelical librarians who had no truck with Halloween. Thanksgiving alienates a lot of people. I’m not suggesting librarians start telling Bible stories (although it’s funny how blithely we’ll share “myths” from “other cultures”) nor would I insist any librarian tell a story or read aloud a book that made her uncomfortable. My point is only that decorating and programming on the premise of “first, do not offend” is not good ground for good service.

    I can see an already world-weary six-year-old Claire rolling her eyes at the mall Santa. 😉

  21. Elissa Gershowitz says:

    What she said. Once again, Claire proves she’s wiser than her years (paging Kitty Flynn!).
    I’d be happy if it were *all* discussed in terms of mythology — here’s what people believe and why — rather than limiting access, if those are the choices. But too often, Santa is jolly-fun-time-guy while everything else is: “Gather ’round, children, and eat your vegetables and learn something.” And I ask you: who wants vegetables when you can have candy canes?!

  22. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:
  23. Elissa Gershowitz says:

    ALTHOUGH — and this takes us way off topic, but perhaps speaks to your idea that you’ll always offend someone — talking about what “people believe” is its own slippery-slope. As a kid, with an unconventional Jewish upbringing, I was always confounded by what My People were said to believe and what I (or my family, etc.) personally believed. But, yeah, still, keep Santa out of the library 🙂

  24. Malkah Livneh says:

    A little late in answering your question but here it goes. I am Jewish and while I have no problems with Christmas displays in stores or advertising in the media , I don’t want my tax dollars paying for any religious displays in a library. I thought that there is suppose to be a separation between church and state. I would like to feel that my local library is a quiet sanctuary for everyone no matter what their beliefs. . I’m not asking anyone to celebrate Hannukah ( a minor Jewish holiday) in the library. I think it’s best to leave religion out of the library.
    It may be hard for you to understand but yes there are people who really don’t want Santa in their library.

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