It was, officials say, an “ill-advised” attempt to spark a conversation about religious diversity at the University of Minnesota.
But last week, a memo about holiday parties in the agricultural college sparked a backlash on social media that left U officials scrambling to explain that they were not, in fact, part of any “war on Christmas.”
The memo, which was circulated at a Dec. 6 lunch meeting, cautioned against using decorations, music and food that are “specific to any one religion” on campus. It specifically cited Santa Claus, Christmas trees, dreidels, menorahs, doves and the colors red and green as “not appropriate for gatherings and displays at this time of year.”
A week later, a story about the memo ran on the website Intellectual Takeout, which quoted a law professor as saying: “This sounds like the university might be going a little bit berserk.”
From there, the news started spreading on conservative news sites like the College Fix, which delights in exposing political correctness on campus. “University memo: wrapped gifts, Santa, Christmas trees ‘not appropriate,’ ” ran the headline 10 days before Christmas.
The problem, says Evan Lapiska, a U spokesman, is that much of the coverage inaccurately portrayed the memo as official university policy.
“It was a well-intentioned but ill-advised attempt to spark a dialogue,” he said. “It was part of a lunch-hour discussion series that took on a life of its own.” The idea of banning Santa Claus or certain colors, he added, “is not something that the university would put forth or consider in any way, shape or form as potential policy.”
The memo, “Religious Diversity and Holidays,” was prepared for the Dec. 6 session of a program, known as Dean’s Dialogues, for students, faculty and staff in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Only those who showed up received the handout, according to Lapiska.
It began: “We encourage units to recognize holidays in ways that are respectful of the diversity of the University community, and recommend the following for your consideration:”
Among the tips: “Keep the theme of any invitations neutral and nonreligious and not reflective of any one religious holiday.” In addition to Santa and other Christmas and Hanukkah symbols, the list of inappropriate items included angels, the star of Bethlehem, bows/wrapped gifts and bells.
Jon Miltimore, a senior editor at Intellectual Takeout, a Bloomington-based website, said he broke the story after a concerned U employee shared a copy of the handout. “It was a bit cloak and dagger,” he said. “The person was very adamant about remaining anonymous.”
While the university insists it’s not an official list of dos and don’ts, Miltimore said it could appear that way to employees.
“I’m not sure that the person that receives that letter understands the distinction,” he said. “We’re giving you this material and we’re telling you it’s inappropriate — but it’s not official policy?”
The story triggered a fair amount of outrage once it caught fire online. “I think probably because the document was so silly,” said Miltimore. “Saying certain colors are inappropriate, that Santa Claus is a religious icon. I think that’s what made the story [have] legs.”
Before long, strangers started posting “merry Christmas” on the university’s Facebook page, some with less than merry comments. “Boo!” wrote one man. “Go find a safe space and crawl into it.”
Lapiska, the U spokesman, argues that the story has been distorted in the retelling. “It’s very clear that it’s fed into a narrative that was convenient,” he said. But the U, he insists, is not waging war on Christmas. “If you’ve been on the U campus around the holidays, the gates of campus have red and green on them,” he said. Garlands abound.
Even President Eric Kaler made a joint appearance with Santa at the U’s cancer center.
Since the U started pushing back on the media accounts, some websites have updated their articles, declaring that the U was retracting the holiday restrictions.
Not so, says Lapiska. “There was no retraction, because there was never a restriction,” he said.
Still, “I think there’s certainly regret around how it has been characterized and perceived,” he said. “Certainly there will be a conversation, if it hasn’t already taken place, to see how we can learn from this moving forward and avoid a situation like this in the future.”