Read this before you decorate your university for the holidays

Last year–too late to do much good–we ran a post about some research done on the harms caused by Christmas trees in public places. I was especially concerned about universities. The university is an environment that’s stressful for many people to start with and it seems the tree has become an acceptable display of secular Christmas. Don’t most university campuses have Christmas trees? The one I’m at does.

Here’s last year’s post reprinted in time to do things differently:

“Reminders of Christmas can make religious minorities feel ill at ease — even if they don’t realize it. When people who did not celebrate Christmas or who did not identify as Christian filled out surveys about their moods while in the same room as a small Christmas tree, they reported less self-assurance and fewer positive feelings than if they hadn’t been reminded of the holiday, according to a new study.” The full news story is here.

The researcher Michael Schmitt, a social psychologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada said, the presence of the tree caused non-celebrators and non-Christians to feel subtly excluded.
“Simply having this 12-inch Christmas tree in the room with them made them feel less included in the university as a whole, which to me is a pretty powerful effect from one 12-inch Christmas tree in one psychology lab,” said Schmitt. Study participants did not know the study was about the effects of Christmas trees.

“Identity moderates the effects of Christmas displays on mood, self-esteem, and inclusion
Identity moderates the effects of Christmas displays on mood, self-esteem, and inclusion,”
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (November 2010), 46 (6), pg. 1017-1022.

Abstract: In two experiments we examined the differential psychological consequences of being in the presence of a Christmas display on participants who did or did not celebrate Christmas (Study 1), or who identified as Christian, Buddhist, or Sikh (Study 2). Participants completed measures of psychological well-being in a cubicle that either did or did not contain a small Christmas display. Across several indicators of well-being, the display harmed non-celebrators and non-Christians, but enhanced well-being for celebrators and Christians. In Study 2, we found that the negative effect of the display on non-Christians was mediated by reduced feelings of inclusion. The results raise concerns about the ubiquitous presence of dominant cultural symbols (such as Christmas displays) in culturally diverse societies.

37 thoughts on “Read this before you decorate your university for the holidays

  1. In a perfect world, yes, Christmas should be a private, religious celebration. I worry though that pushing this issue, which is mostly symbolic (although with some real impact according to the study), will serve most to reinforce stereotypes of “joyless feminists” and end up be counter-productive when the inevitable pushback swamps the initial effort in a tidal wave of pro-Christmas sentiment. When you can fight all battles, you need to choose the battle you do fight carefully.

  2. I wasn’t imagining battles! I was directing this more at people who might be involved in making decisions about holiday decorations. That might be as simple as not putting Christmas cards on your office , something i’ve done unthinkingly in the past.

  3. Yes, the ‘uppity bitch’ comment was deleted. I decided it was in violation of the norms governing respectful conversation.

  4. On the other hand – we live in an increasingly privatised world, where we are made into individual consumers – traditions like secular Xmas celebrations have the power to take us out of this and place us in to a community setting. This is surely positive and politically progressive?

    Even if the study can be generalised across countries (I’m not sure that the context would be the same here in UK as in Canada for example) – And even if it can be generalised out of the lab (seeing a Xmas tree in a room while filling out a survey is surely different to seeing one in a public place) – it might be that the negative effects of feeling like isolated private individuals, not involved in any collective celebrations, might very well out weigh the negative effects of feeling excluded by Xmas.

    Rather then get rid of Xmas tree’s would it not be better for us to aim to further secularise Xmas and make it even more inclusive?

  5. We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

    Joy to the world, the Lord has come, Let Earth receive her King!

    Away in a manger no crib for a bed, the Little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head…does that make you nervous? It should!

  6. I tend to (more or less) agree with Joseph Kisolo. It seems on the whole that holidays have the religious significance we place on them, and a great number of people don’t associate any religious significance with Christmas at all (as a small example, I know several devout atheists who love Christmas and it was a Jewish student who organized a department “secret santa” at my school). It would sound strange to tell people that they cannot put up pumpkins for Halloween or pictures of turkeys for Thanksgiving, but within certain communities these are very religious holidays. Even if one’s personal celebration of Christmas or Thanksgiving involves a religious component it seems perfectly possible that this is something which can be done in private while any more public indications of celebration are secular in nature.

    It also seems that if the problem is a felt sense of exclusion this could be mitigated by other factors: Allow members of the department to contribute to choosing decorations, attempt to include representations of the variety of seasonal holidays people celebrate. Have an “end of semester” or “beating the winter blues” or “welcome the new year” party. Expand rather than contract the festivities.

    Perhaps it is a small matter, and the easiest solution is to simply avoid decorations at all rather than risk making people feel excluded. But December can be a very dreary month. For many academics it means exams, grading, end of semester deadlines, snow, darkness, cold, pain-inducing gatherings with extended family or the loneliness of being without family. For students and adjuncts the end of the semester might mean an uncertain future brought on by graduation or the end of employment. It can be a stressful and painful time. For many Christmas is a lone bright spot in an otherwise discouraging season. I would encourage everyone, regardless of their religious preferences, to find some small reason to celebrate. We all need something to look forward to and an occasional distraction from the stresses of everyday life.

  7. I’m also inclined to agree with Joseph and r.p. Here’s an anecdote. I’m aware it’s not a proper study in any shape or form. There are a lot of Moslems and Hindus where I live. (I am mixed race and Buddhist.) I love it when it’s Eid and Diwali, despite having no religious attachment to those festivals. I enjoy seeing people’s houses and shops lit up and covered with decorations. Special food appears in the take aways and local Asian supermarkets. I’d be pretty sad if these celebrations disappeared behind closed doors, happening only in the private spaces occupied by the celebrants. Of course, I can see it could well be different to be a minority, faced with the celebrations of the majority culture. But I’m inclined to think that the loss of celebrations – especially in the middle of Winter (dark and gloomy for others as well as academics!) – would be a bad thing. Working towards more inclusiveness seems like a good way forward.

  8. When I read the earlier version of this post last year, I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t in some way co-opt the Christmas symbols. The discussion of this and other suggestions on the earlier post are instructive. Now I think it is a deeper problem than I realized at first. There’re a number of ways in which people can be made to feel outsiders and, shockingly enough at least to me, that feeling degrades their self-confidence and in many cases degrades their performance. This seems to me to present a particularly important problem for academic institutions where faculty are constantly assessing each other and students.

    This reflection might support a difference between universities and, say, normal city or village settings. There also seems to me so much that is alienating and depressing in the public spaces these days. Christmas trees are depressing for some, but I suspect that for many readers here the evident signs of the inequality of wealth and health care are at least as dispiriting. Here my recent experience is mostly of the US. I cannot count the number of businesses I frequent where the serving people’s teeth are in shocking shape, often with huge gaps where many teeth once were. Perhaps poor people in the US all have some phobia about going to the dentist, but I doubt that. Right now I often spend weekends on the East End of Galveston Island, and the two large brand-name supermarkets are on the west end. So I go to a little market which is mostly frequented by poor members of minority groups. It is stunning to see the very evident health problems so many people have. Crutches and wheel chairs are common relatively common. I feel like I am among a group of exceptionally brave people dealing with tragic circumstances. That’s profoundly depressing. It certainly is also a very scary sign about where culture in the US is going. I’ve also just recently been told that some people have seen rats in the aisles of the little market. We are not here talking about the big inner city. Perhaps this area has a similarly captive populace, but alternatives are dwindling for people right across the United States.

  9. My university has an undergraduate population that is substantially (>40% at the lower division level) from Asia, primarily China. We can secularize Christmas all we want, and these students will still be on the outside, because it is part of a cultural tradition that, religious or not, they were not raised in.

    Some of them do seem to appreciate things like Christmas decorations, as interesting and novel expressions of the exotic place in which they now live. But I have no doubt that many of them already struggle with the foreignness with which they are constantly confronted, which gets to be overwhelming for some. At the busy end of a long semester that already involved so much extra work in taking courses and writing papers not in one’s native language, departmental Christmas decorations may be just one more thing that reminds you that you don’t fit here.

    The religious aspect is not the problem, to which secularization is the response – the cultural aspect is the issue at many universities.

  10. As an agnostic who enjoys Christmas, I’m inclined to agree with those who have suggested making it more secular and more inclusive, but I do worry that my feelings on this are influenced by the fact that perhaps I’m sort of culturally christian– I grew up going to church, my family is religious, etc.– and that other folks may not feel the same way, and that it might be difficult to attempt to make it more inclusive without giving a sort of tokenizing impression, or without making those folks who feel unincluded even more aware of their minority status than they otherwise would be.

  11. I forgot to include the link to the actual paper. It’s here, The authors mention as a topic for future study whether attempts at inclusion make a difference. I’ll ask and see whether they they followed up.

    I don’t think we should dismiss the problem just because Christmas trees make some of us feel good at a gloomy time of year. If they make others feel worse, then it’s a problem. And as noted above, it’s especially a problem in university environments which are stressful for many to start and in which people are evaluated on the basis of their performance.

  12. Yay, another year of people shoving Christmas down my throat and telling me that it should be my holiday. Yes, indeed, we need to all think the same and celebrate the same, and please, be sure to ignore the context of a religion that has sought to impose its beliefs on non-believers for centuries. But I’m not going to retype everything I said last year — it’s all there for anyone who would like to see it:

  13. My reposting this discussion at this time is to get people to consider doing things differently. Last year’s post was mid-December when all the trees etc would have been up for a month!

  14. Oh, I’m glad you reposted it. I’m just reacting to hearing the same old story from some of the posters on this thread about how I should embrace Christmas and what’s wrong with me if I don’t. I just don’t know if I have the energy to repeat my reasons, and clearly, I don’t have the patience to repeat them in a patient way (sorry), so I wanted to link to the previous discussion, with the hope that I was more patient last year.

  15. I know, I know. I liked many of your points and Rebecca’s from last year. A little standpoint epistemology ought to go a long way and it’s frustrating hearing feminists saying some of the same things men say when women raise concerns about working environment. This isn’t about anyone’s house. It’s about university offices, hallways, and classrooms, It’s clear from the report that you can’t just ask people if they are bothered. First, one might say that aren’t when they are to avoid making a fuss. Been there, said that. Second, and this is clear from some of the stereotype threat/implicit bias literature, the person might not know it’s affecting them.

  16. I am very happy to see this thread and to have found last year’s thread as well. I once considered writing a paper on the hegemony of Christmas and the implicit demands for assimilation to the dominant culture made by the overt performance of Christian rituals in public space. I do think the language of inclusiveness (‘let’s secularize Christmas’) can often be just another attempt to elevate one’s particularity to universal status. Especially in the US, where on the one hand there is a constitutional separation of church and state, but on the other hand, politics demands (at least of politicians and to some extent constituents) a religious identity, it is very hard to negotiate the space between political and cultural imposition. For me, this reverberates especially strongly with the question of how tight the identity is between ‘being an American’ (whatever that might mean) and ‘being at least minimally culturally Christian’. In our current political climate, there are at least some who view ‘real Americans’ as Christian Americans. The ease with which culturally Christian atheists can assimilate to Christian norms then seems part of the problem (just as a commenter pointed out last year that we would take umbrage at the conflation between ‘man’ and ‘human’). Perhaps, also as the commenters from last year suggest, in the UK, Christmas is a genuinely secular holiday (although we might wonder about how it became so and at what point inclusiveness becomes capture so that neutralization retains forms of privilege), but in the US it is at best a pseudo-secular holiday, If there are reasons to value belonging to one’s own community and thus to value an ‘American’ cultural (or national) identity (and I think there are), this is all the more reason to unbind American-ness from religious identity and practices (that is, to align it with foundational constitutional values).

  17. supposing that a scientific study showed that people who found themselves in the same room as people who displayed overtly religious symbols such as headscarves, turbans, crucifixed and so on felt uneasy and excluded from these self-congratulatory clubs – would this be a good argument for banning these religious symbols? or would the blame fall upon those ‘uneasy’ people be accused of islamophobia, sikiphobia and christianaphobia?

  18. Yes. That is it: It is a cultural matter.

    Supposedly x-mas is a secularized version of an older tradition. Now we drag it into being a festival of avoiding seasonal affective disorder (SAD – whether caused by winter sunlight or end of semester exams).

    The problem is deeper. Taking religious significance away from a festival causes two kinds of harm. First, those wishing for the religious significance are denied it. Second, those wishing to leave that significance alone for others are having a new form of the same pushed upon them.

    The problem is wider. Do you say holiday or holy day? Do your favourite shops have similar hours on both Saturday and Sunday of each weekend, or are the hours skewed? What are holidays other than days defined legally, often, as days off school/work?

  19. @Hilary Easton: Again, just to be absolutely clear, I’m talking about decorations in public spaces. There aren’t rights to personal expression that we’d need to justify overriding as is the case with personal symbols of religious belief. I’m really just interested in the very narrow question of how we decorate universities. There are choices to be made and some are better and others are worse. That’s the space in which I’m interested in…not personal dress or household decoration. Some universities put Christmas trees in their libraries. If that affects the ability of some to study effectively because they feel excluded, that matters. It ought to be one of things that matters morally when we make our institutional decorating choices. I was pretty moved by the discussion last year and the claims made by those who said it mattered, that it upset them. Given that there will be people who will be upset and not speak, and those who it will affect but who won’t notice in addition to those who both notice and speak, I think the rest of us (culturally Christian speaking here) ought to listen.

  20. RedEyedFrog – “I don’t think we should dismiss the problem just because Christmas trees make some of us feel good at a gloomy time of year. If they make others feel worse, then it’s a problem.”

    I agree that this would be a bad reason to dismiss the problem. Firstly, because in general it seems like we should be concerned about harming minorities for the good of majorities. But secondly, and I think more importantly in this case, because of the context of racism we might worry that the elevation of one cultural celebration above others is particularly problematic because the majority culture is associated with the structural oppression of the ‘foreigner’.

    However, I don’t think I (or the other posters) where making quite this argument.

    My argument is that suggesting that we should oppose public symbols of celebration, which is what the post seems to do, might be associated with harms of its own – harms that are potentially greater then those associated with the existence of public symbols: The risk of encouraging the alienation and isolation of individuals – the risk of making the only possible celebration a ‘private’ one and lessening the possibility of community/collective celebration.

    The argument about secularization is important because Xmas as a religious celebration is associated with a majority culture that oppresses the ‘outsider’. The secular festival however, is by its nature more inclusive. Of course it is also a battle ground of the consumerist ideal – but we need to be fighting for a politically progressive meaning for the celebrations not getting rid of celebrations.

  21. My thoughts run in just the opposite direction. I believe Christmas would have less ability to monopolize public space if it was acknowledged as a genuinely religious holiday, rather than idealized/falsified as a (faux) secular one. By trying to universalize Christmas (which seems to me be to be intrinsically non-universal), the aim is to legitimate its hold on the public imagination. Christmas might well represent a majority culture in America, but this is not the same as representing American culture in toto. It is this conflation (of the religious and the public and the national) that I find disturbing.

  22. I think the difference between Christmas in the US and Christmas in the UK is crucial, as others have pointed out. Christmas over here doesn’t have the same significance as it seems to have for folks over in the US.

  23. @Anotherjewishatheistfeminist, what do you mean by *intrinsically non-universal*, and why do you think Christmas fits that description?

  24. @Monkey, how would you characterise Christmas in the UK (where, unlike in the States, it is not only an official secular holiday but also an official religious holiday)?

  25. I haven’t looked at the research this year, but as a general point we should avoid conflating feeling bad with the much more specific feeling alienated, an outsider, and so on. (I think I’m guilty of the conflation above, btw.) The point of the distinction is that the effect we are worried about in the places of profession assessments, like universities, is a degradation of performance. At least a lot of things that induce feeling of being an outsider have that fairly specific effect; one’s grades go down.

    There may also be research that says that any type of feeling bad makes one’s grades go down, but I sort of doubt it. If, e.g., I weigh myself and find I’ve gained 10 lb, I will feel bad, I confess. Does that mean that if I take a test in a few hours I’ll score less, and so universities should ban scales from door rooms? I think this is all a matter of fantasy..

    The point here is that we do know, apparently, that Christmas trees will leave a significant number of people feeling as outsiders and they are going to do less well. There are lots of ways of feeling bad where we don’t know that. In particular, we don’t know if missing signs of Christmas in a room will lower your scores.

    This means that the argument is not about a trade-off in who and how many feel bad. It’s about continuing a pattern that has a particular deleterious effect.

    I’m a little less clear about jolly England, to be perfectly frank, though my detailed knowledge is now possibly out of date. When I first went to England, I found that just about any deviation from “the way things are done” left one jeered at. Of course, this was Oxford at a time where just about everyone acquired as quickly as possible the right accent, since generally otherwise no one would take your seriously. Some lucky people stuck it out and survived, but I think even Gareth Evans started to sound frightfully upper class after a short while. Of course, most of the male students were imitating Peter Strawson, so that was another route.

    I remember an awful time when a couple of people persuaded me to sit in the back of hall for Christmas dinner and leave before the Christmas toast to the Queen. That’s apparently really, really bad. Aside from my getting a huge public dressing down for disgracing the graduate community, for weeks, and perhaps months afterwards, the head of the Graduate House turned her back on me whenever I appeared. Presumably things are a bit less rigid, but for people for whom Christmas celebrations are really outre and who are themselves perhaps less than loved because of their culture or color, I expect the associations with Christmas and the feeling of being an outsider may have a particular tinge it is hard for cultural insiders to appreciate.

    Of course, I don’t know if everyone talking about this grew up in a culture with Christmas in the background, if not the foreground.

  26. I read and commented on this thread last year, and I have to say, I’m pretty shocked that at least a handful of folks seem to be rather oblivious to the perspectives on non-Christians on this issue. I’ve started to type a reply several times in the past two days, but I’ve found myself too frustrated to finish. The timing of this discussion is interesting for me, too, since as a Jewish athiest, the *only* weekend holiday I am able to spend with my extended family is Thanksgiving (which is coming up next week). While my parents would like my sister and I to come home for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as well as for Passover, these holidays are rarely on a weekend, and none of my family members get off from work or school on these days. Among the many privileges that Christians (or athiests whose family members celebrate a “secular” Christmas) enjoy is being able to have vacation time (or at least days) correlate with holidays. I mention this not because I think it’s that “big” of a deal, but the unacknowledged privileging of certain religions really irritates me.

    So while I have no problem at all with Christmas trees in my friends’ homes or on my neighbors’ lawns, I am made uncomfortable when I see these in my place of employment (thankfully, my university doesn’t do this).

    I suspect that there must be some serious cultural differences between the U.S. and the U.K., because the idea that Christmas is really just a secular holiday that we should all just enjoy strikes me as absurd. (I teach at a large research university in the mid-west; I’m sure there’re cultural differences about this in different regions of the U.S. as well.)

  27. I don’t think any of us folk suggesting that there’s something good about public Christmas decorations are ‘oblivious to the perspectives of non-Christians on this issue’. I can’t speak for the others, but as I said above, I am non-Christian.

    I think I’m right in saying that none of the people expressing agreement with the idea that there should be no Christmas decorations in public places are from the UK. I can fully see that the difference in significance that Christmas has in US/Canada means that a secular, inclusive Christmas isn’t an option for those places.

    But, it seems to me, things are different in the UK. We don’t have the link between national identity and being Christian that seemingly exists in US, which someone alluded to above. We don’t have a large amount of people with what I would class as fundamentalist Christian beliefs. We do have some churches that preach such values, but they’re few and far between, as compared to what I know of the US (certain parts of it anyway). Lots of people here celebrate Christmas by decorating their houses and giving cards and presents to each other, whilst explicitly professing no religious beliefs at all. Where I live, there are lots of Asian supermarkets. (Do these things exist in the US? I’ve no idea.) These are shops run by Asian people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc. selling food used in cooking from those bits of the world, veg, cosmetic products such as amla oil, henna, neem oil, and so on. We also have takeaways, cook-shops, and small restaurants run by people from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and some Kurdish people. Lots of the shops and takeaways put Christmas decorations up. Some even have ‘Merry Christmas’ signs in their windows.

    There has also – it is said – been a Winter Festival on our gloomy isle at this time of year from well before Christianity arrived with the Romans.

  28. AnnJ – hilarious story about Oxford. (To any other readers who may be confused – not representative of British culture.)

  29. “I suspect that there must be some serious cultural differences between the U.S. and the U.K., because the idea that Christmas is really just a secular holiday that we should all just enjoy strikes me as absurd. (I teach at a large research university in the mid-west; I’m sure there’re cultural differences about this in different regions of the U.S. as well.)”

    Yes, there really really are. When I got here from the US 16 years ago, I was shocked at the people wishing me a Happy Christmas. I took them to be making assumptions about my religion. But then they turned out to be atheists and Jews, and they were throwing Christmas parties. I’m now used to this, but it was a big adaptation.

  30. Interestingly, while Christmas is secular here, and all the atheists seem happy, there are limits: the British atheists are also uncomfortable with all the Baby Jesus stuff their kids come home talking about while schools are doing their Nativity plays. Yes, Nativity plays. Still not used to that one.

  31. Where I live, there are lots of Asian supermarkets. (Do these things exist in the US? I’ve no idea.)

    Yes- in any place where there is an Asian population of any size at all (most big cities) and some where there really isn’t (there were one or two such places in Boise, Idaho when I lived there.) Many put up some sort of Christmas decoration, for what that’s worth. (Supposedly Christmas is big in Japan, too, though I’m always a bit worried about believing such stories.)

  32. I was a bit blank at the sentence, re: the UK, “We don’t have the link between national identity and being Christian that seemingly exists in US, which someone alluded to above.” Er, am I just a really ignorant gal? I think of the UK and the Church of England as quite linked. Insofar as there is one. I feel thick, maybe I’m missing something. (I’m really tired, I should add.)

    I’ve only met a few dozen Brits, but all the atheists do not seem happy re: Xmas. I imagine I’m meeting the wrong ones; Anthony Grayling is probably not representative, Jenny could point out! But then how do you know the Americans you meet ARE representative? You know what I’m saying?

  33. thank you for posting this, I am drafting a letter to the head of my university right now to protest the two (that I know of) Christmas trees on campus. We are a PUBLIC liberal-arts school.

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