Celebrate “Holidays” on Campus

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Over the past 40 years, I have observed the holiday season on seven public and private campuses (including undergraduate and graduate schools). Everyone approached the holiday season differently. Many found the expressions best suited to their community ethos: some focused on one religious point of view, others several, and some had no official recognition of any kind.

I wasn’t much affected by institutions that focused only on Christmas. I had grown up Catholic, so while the expressions were lovely and familiar, I learned little except for the nuances I found in institutions affiliated with Protestant sects. (Warning: at one point I gave up on why Catholics go to Mass from midnight to 11:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve and why it “counts” to go on Christmas Day.) Of the seven institutions, two stand out for affecting my worldview, instilling greater understanding, and inspiring curiosity and a thirst for knowledge – all most people would say are the goals of higher education.

The first was Boston University, my undergraduate alma mater. Although initially affiliated with the Methodist Church, even in the early 1980s when I was there it was already known for its diverse and international student body. One of the things BU did in the mess halls was to be very aware of the cultural traditions surrounding food and religious holidays. The variety of culinary traditions were honored each day (including items that were or were not permitted at certain times of the year for religious reasons). In addition, the festive holiday meals of all kinds allowed us to discover and exchange with our comrades. Growing up Catholic in North Carolina in the 1970s never gave me such exposure to worldly beliefs and practices; I am eternally grateful. (I tried to introduce collard greens, black-eyed peas, ham hocks, and cornbread to my peers. Unfortunately, few seemed grateful to eat and learn of the luck associated with their consumption during the holidays.)

Concurrently, but equally important to my knowledge of cultural traditions, I completed an undergraduate internship at the historic Slater Mill site in Pawtucket, RI in 1984. That year, the United States Supreme Court ruled on the historic case Lynch v. Donnelly (also nicknamed the “reindeer rule”). The case involved Christmas decorations purchased with municipal funds in Pawtucket and placed in Slater Mill Park (right next to the mill, where I was intern). Daniel Donnelly (supported by the ACLU) objected to the posting and sued Pawtucket Mayor Daniel Lynch.

The District Court and the Court of Appeal found in favor of the plaintiff. Then the case went to the Supreme Court to determine whether the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibited the exhibit, which included a nativity scene, Santa Claus and reindeer, a Christmas tree, a clown, animals and other characters. (Frankly, I wonder why there was no objection to the clown in the display. WTF. Including a clown makes no sense. You can’t change your mind about that.) A 5-against decision 4 determined that the secular and non-secular items on display could not be banned because the display was not an endorsement of Christianity as a whole. The Pawtucket experience taught me a lot about the Supreme Court, the First Amendment, the separation of church and state, and the public observance of religious holidays.

Although the Court settled Lynch v. Donnelly, cases continue to be argued in court over holiday shows today. The nature of holiday exhibits is also often discussed and debated on college campuses, especially in public institutions. It was true in an institution where I was director of the art museum. Longwood University, a public institution in Virginia, displayed a Christmas tree in the institution’s main historic building, known as the Rotunda. However, many campus voters were offended by the focus on Christianity and called for recognition of other religious observances occurring at the same time of year.

In response, the administration decided to place exhibits depicting objects of religious significance from around the world in the space. As director of the museum, I coordinated the object selection and interpretation efforts. It was an arduous task fraught with pitfalls. For example, I asked myself: is it appropriate to place objects related to private worship, such as a shrine, on public display? Was it ethical for a non-practitioner to create an exhibit that would typically be performed as part of a ritual performed by someone who practiced the faith? (I considered what would happen to me for creating the Wiccan display since I was not a practicing witch. Seriously, that was disrespectful.)

Was it correct or justifiable to equate Christmas (a major holiday for Christians) with a minor holiday for another religion by juxtaposing and placing the displays in the same context? What were we teaching by doing this? I also struggled to find experts on campus to help me, as we weren’t teaching some of the relevant subjects.

It was difficult to research, succinctly convey each holiday, and respectfully display the associated symbols. Nevertheless, the effort has been beneficial even if it is flawed, reactionary and problematic. By acknowledging various religious holidays and traditions, we learned something about each other, the world, biases and shortcomings, and how we can improve the learning environment for faculty, staff and students.

Our mission in higher education should always be to learn and understand more, and that should also include holidays.

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