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Making Local Government Holiday Observances More Inclusive

This blog discusses how local governments can expand their winter holidays to include all of their employees and residents. Retired Legal Consultant Paul Sullivan’s 2019 blog post How Can Local Governments Celebrate the Holidays? remains MRSC’s primary guidance on what laws affect municipalities while celebrating the winter holidays. This post is intended to focus more on how municipalities can tie their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts into the winter holidays.

First, the “Why”

Government employers have an obligation under state and federal law to not discriminate based on (among other criteria) race or creed. Whether intended or not, focusing on holidays celebrated by one culture or religion can have the effect of making coworkers, employees, and customers who do not share that culture or religion feel excluded.

As municipalities across the state have adopted Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policies they look not only outward to their residents and customers, they also look inward to their staff. They are developing equity lenses intended to improve participation in internal policymaking to take advantage of the life experiences and different viewpoints of all their employees. This same consideration easily translates into how the municipality can be more inclusive during the winter (and other) holidays.

Where to Start?

Look at your plans for the next few months. Use a multicultural calendar to assist in planning events and scheduling meetings and deadlines. Allow managers to be flexible in scheduling meetings and deadlines, which will allow staff to observe the holidays they recognize. In addition to any paid leave or comp time they may have on the books, RCW 1.16.050(3) provides for two unpaid floating holidays “for a reason of faith or conscience or an organized activity conducted under the auspices of a religious denomination, church, or religious organization.” Check your personnel policies and collective bargaining agreements to see if they provide flexibility for staff to swap out vacation days or shifts.

Tip: Ask for volunteers in planning out the season! There is a need to balance inclusion without putting the burden of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts on your coworkers who are members of underrepresented groups. Some people may feel that asking them to share their traditions and practices highlights the differences between them and their coworkers, and they may not want to do that.


Here are a few areas where holiday decorations are commonly displayed.

Public workspaces and common areas

The guiding principle is to avoid the appearance of endorsing one religion over another.

Secular or non-religious decorations are okay. Secular holiday decorations include things like tinsel or garland, snowpersons, candy canes, reindeer, etc. The U.S. Supreme Court has determined that trees are generally secular or non religious, but you can also apply these same principles to ornaments that are placed on the tree.

Alternatively, some agencies include a mix of religious and non-religious decorations representing a diverse set of cultural beliefs. If you choose to do this, consider these questions about the display (based on the test used by federal courts):

  1. Is the display is noncoercive?
  2. Does the display give (or not give) a direct benefit to religion in such degree to establish or tend to establish religion?
  3. Does the display convey a message to the reasonable observer that the combined display was an effort to acknowledge cultural diversity?

Personal workspaces

Since employers are required to provide reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs, employers should not try to suppress religious expression in an employee’s personal workspace unless it creates an undue hardship on business operations or if it is visible to the public in a way that implies the agency’s endorsement of religion. 

Apparel and accessories

Same as with decorations. Does the person regularly work with members of the public? In that case, consider whether a sweater with snowflakes instead of something more identifiable with a particular holiday may be more welcoming to a diverse customer base. Of course, you can continue to enforce your regular dress code.

Common Questions

Additionally, here are some questions MRSC has received in the past regarding various holiday traditions.

Can we hang some mistletoe? 

No. Just no. First of all, since the Celtic tradition of putting a sprig of mistletoe over the door and forbidding fighting beneath it evolved into a custom of kissing under it, the potential for sexual harassment and hostile work environment claims is almost a certainty. Second, mistletoe, a parasitic plant, is poisonous and can be toxic if any part of the plant is ingested. May we suggest wreathes? They’re pretty and they smell nice (but do check to see if any of your coworkers is allergic).

What about playing holiday music? 

Even when it’s not the holiday season, playing music in the office is almost as controversial as what gets heated up in the microwave (leftover fish, anyone?). During the holidays, the same considerations we’ve discussed about decorations apply. Can your customers hear it? Probably best to avoid the music. (Some of your coworkers may be taking the “Little Drummer Boy challenge,” in which they see if they can avoid the song between 12:01 on the day after Thanksgiving and 11:59 on Dec. 23.) It could work if everyone in the office agrees that listening to holiday music is fine but be careful not to coerce a reluctant coworker. 

Tip: Consider whether decorating a personal workspace, your choice of clothing, or the music you’re playing may be perceived as imposing one employee’s beliefs on others. For example, if you’re a supervisor who regularly meets with staff in your office, think about whether staff may be uncomfortable with the decorations or music in your office. Provide an alternative, undecorated meeting space instead.

How about holiday greetings? 

Ah, the “third rail” of winter holiday discussions. Here, we advise kindness and the assumption of good intentions. Discuss with your staff the importance of the agency not being perceived to favor one religion over another (or none at all) when dealing with the public. Is there a “business purpose” for agency employee to say anything except "Thank you and have a nice day” when dealing with the public? Focus the discussion on inclusion and respect for each other and whether it makes sense not to assume that the person to whom they are speaking celebrates the same holidays. And, if a customer gives the staff any type of holiday greeting, a “Thank you, you too,” is a lovely and acceptable response.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Steve Gross

About Steve Gross

Steve Gross joined MRSC as a Legal Consultant in January 2020.

Steve has worked in municipal law and government for over 20 years as an Assistant City Attorney for Lynnwood, Seattle, Tacoma, and Auburn, and as the City Attorney for Port Townsend and Auburn. He also has been a legal policy advisor for the Pierce County Council and has worked in contract administration.