Holiday Decorations

The holiday season at universities and colleges is one of celebration, service, and tradition that includes fundraisers and toy and food drives, concerts, lighting ceremonies, and special performances. More often than not, these events are opportunities to celebrate a wide range of cultures and religions while highlighting the inclusive characteristics of the higher education environment.

Holiday DecorationsRecognizing the “December Dilemma”—that Christmas can make religious minorities, those who don’t celebrate Christmas or those who don’t identify as Christian, feel ill at ease—should provide an opportunity for honoring and recognizing cultures and values without excluding anyone. Remember that millions of Americans don’t celebrate Christmas religiously, either as followers of non-Christian religions (Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses) or as individuals with no religious affiliation.
One could even move beyond the “Happy Holidays versus Merry Christmas” greetings debate to ask, “Why do we only say, ‘Happy Holidays’ in December?” It is a month to recognize a number of cultural celebrations—Hanukkah, Kwanza, the Chinese New Year—in addition to Christmas, but what about May for a holiday greeting? There is Ramadan (Islamic), Ascension Day and Pentecost (Christian), Lag B’omer and Shavuot (Jewish), and Declaration of the Bab and Ascension of Baha’u’llah (Baha’i). If you add Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Cinco de Mayo, International Worker’s Day, Jewish American Heritage Month, and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, May is one of the busiest “holiday” months of the year.

It’s important to recognize there are religious and cultural holidays celebrated every month and that they can each be approached academically and not devotionally, supported through study and not practice, and celebrated by teaching concepts, conveying history, and emphasizing educational value. The Anti-Defamation League offers a downloadable Diversity Calendar of Events at its website.

Holiday and end-of-year parties are a place to ask people to talk about any holidays they celebrate during this time of year. Just remember that celebrations in public spaces and workplaces are for everyone, so it should be more important to have an event that invites full participation and good will than a party or event that might come off as exclusive or as offering less value due to a lack of cohesion, social interaction, and inclusivity. Whether it is the student union, another workplace, or in public, the environment should be one where everyone feels comfortable and knows it’s their contribution and participation that is the priority, and not about how they celebrate the holidays.

Decorating holiday or celebration trees, hosting winter wonderland events, and organizing seasonal artistic events should be seen as opportunities to inform and educate people about the origins, meanings, and traditions of various holidays in ways that do not necessarily engage one another in celebratory activities. Treat the holiday as a teachable moment that can underscore the rights, responsibilities, and respect that are associated with the civic agreement we know as the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Most universities have decorating and fire and safety guidelines that provide some direction with respect to displays in public and workspaces, and with the display of holiday decorations, students and employees should be sensitive to the rights and views of others in recognizing a university’s commitment to creating an inclusive environment. Institutionally sponsored religious symbols are not appropriate in a public institution, hence they refrain from displaying such symbols in public areas that may seem to imply an institution’s support for any particular religious view.  

There is no single right way to know which holiday displays may or may not be constitutionally permissible, but context is key. So most universities try to provide guidelines that are flexible, with standards and policies that are clear, simple, fairly enforced, and viewpoint-neutral. In doing so, recognize the constitutional principle and practice of separating church and state goes hand in hand with a commitment to protect the free expression of thought.

Individuals may still exercise a right to express their religious views, and in turn have religious displays in personal workspaces and in their personal dress, but they should also consider whether students, faculty, staff, or others may visit regularly in conducting routine business. If that’s the case, an employee or individual should consider whether there might be an implication that the institution supports that religion, or whether or not a personal display may, in general, cause discomfort for others who visit to conduct business.
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