The air is warm as dusk filters out the last of the sun’s rays. Students “chill” with cookies and wassail in their t-shirts and jeans as they gather in Bearkat Plaza, wishing the Texas temperature would drop a few degrees as they await a winter tradition.
A gentle hush falls over the crowd until, finally, the pleasant ring of a holiday carol rises as hundreds of pinpoint lights flicker to life like stars across a darkened sky. There are few better ways to kick off the start of the holiday season than this. As Sam Houston State University‘s longest-standing and most-beloved tradition, the lighting ceremony of the aptly-named Tree of Light has been an object of fascination for the last 97 of the 138 years since the school’s founding.
It was in 1921 that the Teacher’s Training School – of the Sam Houston Normal Institute – first clustered around a large cedar tree in front of what is now the Evan’s Complex. Steven Begnaud, the Assistant Director for Special Events and Traditions, believes the root of the event stems from people’s natural desire for community.
“Traditions are kind of a weird thing, and it’s hard to say when something becomes a tradition and why that happens, but I think, for this one, it’s a culmination of celebrating the holidays,” Begnaud said. “I think a lot of people just come together around this time of year, and [the Tree of Light] is a great way to highlight that.”
In this case, the word “tradition” is loosely based. While the ceremony’s lifespan is extensive, the trees themselves have seen drastic changes over the years.
Construction for the second half of the Evan’s Complex called for the demolition of the original cedar in 1959. That tree was never cut down – it still stands there today – but the tradition migrated. From Evan’s, it moved to a different home-grown cedar outside Old Main, to a fresh-cut tree where the Bell Tower now resides, to the garden in front of the Sam Houston statue on campus, to its current home in Bearkat Plaza.
It was a matter of preservation that organizers sought to use an artificial tree in 2005, but the alteration took the tradition to new heights. The first artificial tree was a basic 12-footer, which was brought to a full 26 feet, then 40, then 47, and if the star atop today’s giant is included, the tree’s height reaches a complete 52 feet. There are plans to make it even taller.
Set-up begins Thanksgiving week, and take-down begins the first week of January, but the tree lights up from 6:00 p.m. to 7 p.m. every night in between. This starts with the Lighting Ceremony at 6 p.m. on Nov. 28.
The ceremony is a 45-minute program – emceed by the homecoming king and queen – that consists of a performance by the Orange Pride Dance Team, a selection of holiday favorites sung by the SHSU Chorale, a word from the university president, and the collecting of canned goods to donate to The Good Shepherd Mission.
“We hand out candles to all the attendees, and the Freshman Leader Program from the Dean of Students Office…goes out and helps them light all the candles…during the ‘Silent Night’ song, so that’s like the big tradition we have every year,” he said. “‘Jingle Bells’ is always the most popular holiday song of all time, so of course that one’s always played, but we kind of leave [the song selection] up to [the Chorale].”
One special portion of the ceremony is dedicated to “trimming the tree,” during which students, organizations, and departments decorate the tree with ornaments they designed. Many such decorations grow more extravagant by the year.
“A lot of them do the big foam ornament balls, we’ve had UPD glue handcuffs on there, student [organizations] will usually make them with their letters if they’re Greek, or put pictures or just different creative stuff,” he stated. “We really leave the creativity up to them: they all vary, and they’re all very unique to their organizations.”
Attendance has been around a steady two or three thousand students over the last five years, with donations to the Good Shepherd Mission averaging about 3,500 cans. The Student Activities Center is looking to augment those numbers by expanding what the Tree of Light truly celebrates. The Tree of Light is pushing itself to represent a multitude of December and January holidays celebrated by other religions and ethnicities from here in the United States and worldwide.
“I think when you look at the purpose of the event and what it celebrates – the coming together of the student body, of different cultures – I don’t think that’s changed much over the last one hundred years,” Begnaud said. “Of course, the glitz and glam have definitely changed, and the scale of it has grown exponentially over the last 97 years, but I think the original intent of the program is still there.”