When SMU opened in 1915, students and faculty knew that they were creating precedents and traditions about how to celebrate holidays. In the early days of the twentieth century, much like today, students learned to balance studying for exams and celebrating Christmas. And much like today, authority figures worried about the balance between secular fun and the religious reason behind the season.
In 1915, President Robert S. Hyer announced that a large Christmas tree would be installed and decorated in the Rotunda in Dallas Hall. Saturday, December 18, was designated as the day to decorate the tree. SMU administrators gave presents to each and every student. On Sunday the entire SMU community observed the season during a special chapel service at 5:30, “emphasizing the real meaning of Christmas.” No doubt the best present for the SMU community was the announcement that construction of cement sidewalks connecting the dorms with Dallas Hall would begin the next day, Monday, December 20.
The next year, another large tree was placed in the Rotunda. All around Dallas Hall holly, mistletoe, and streamers added color. On Saturday night, a party for the whole university featured vocal celebrations as the student body sang carols, and a chorus of Mexican children performed in both Spanish and English. The program that night also included gifts for bachelor faculty men followed by a reception. The next day a special chapel was held. Music included solos of “Glory to Thee, My God” and “The Birthday of a King.” The carol, “The First Noel,” was sung by all.
One of the most impressive early Christmas celebrations was in 1924 when SMU students played Santa Claus for 50 Dallas students. The SMU Sociology Department worked with United Charities (a precursor of the United Way) to pick children who had the most needs. Under the leadership of the SMU Religious Activities Council, fraternities, sororities, clubs, town students, and theology students raised money. Students gave the children toys, clothing, and sweets, and some female students from the YWCA even made homemade dolls and clothing. Santa presided over the program for the children in the men’s gymnasium decorated with a Christmas tree.
Today, SMU doesn’t decorate just one tree, it lights Dallas Hall and the surrounding trees for the entire Holiday season. The “Celebration of Lights,” harkens back to that first Christmas celebration and chapel service in 1915 with the sharing of hot chocolate and cider, the singing of Christmas carols by the entire SMU community, and the reading by President Turner of the Christmas story from his family bible.