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In The Beginning: Festival Of Lights, 1977

Vicki Sterquell ’78 was a special guest at the Centennial Celebration of Lights ceremony November 30.
Vicki Sterquell ’78 was a special guest at the Centennial Celebration of Lights ceremony November 30.

When she came up with the idea to produce a holiday celebration on campus, Vicki Sterquell ’78 didn’t realize she was creating one of SMU’s most beloved traditions, Celebration of Lights. Sterquell, who resides in Houston, was a special guest at this year’s Centennial Celebration of Lights ceremony on November 30.
Here are some highlights from her account of that first magical event, called Festival of Lights at the time:
Deck Dallas Hall with orange lights?
Sterquell, a member of the Student Foundation Board, pitched the idea for a Christmas lighting party as a thank-you to the community for its support. At the time, SMU did not have a campus Christmas tree or “even celebrate the holiday season,” she says. The board agreed it was a great idea and planning commenced.
“After asking the head of the maintenance department at SMU, Dick Arnett, and getting permission from President James H. Zumberge’s office, I ordered Christmas lights to decorate Dallas Hall and some trees along the main quad, at a cost of $5,000. Since it was so late in ordering, the only lights available from the company were orange.”
Amarillo alumni to the rescue
Even though she had obtained permission through the proper channels, Sterquell learned in late October that no department had money budgeted for the lights. “I felt panic setting in,” she remembers. But that didn’t stop her. She persuaded all those who needed to sign off on the project to agree that she could proceed if she raised the $5,000.
When she told her parents about her plight, they suggested she contact Carolyn Newbold ’42, the society editor of her hometown newspaper, The Amarillo Globe News, and a fellow Mustang. “She offered to write a column about the event to help raise the funds needed. The next weekend I flew home to Amarillo,” where alumni donated the $5,000 she needed.
Let there be white lights!
The idea of orange lights adorning Dallas Hall didn’t appeal to the maintenance department crew charged with stringing the lights, and the department ordered enough white lights for the entire display. The catch: All the orange bulbs had to be replaced. “The entire Student Foundation and friends spent many hours late into the night taking the orange light bulbs out and replacing them with the white bulbs.”
A beloved tradition is born
“Our first event was called Festival of Lights and was held on the first Sunday in December [December 4, 1977],” she says. “The sidewalks were lined with luminarias, a large Christmas tree stood in front of the fountain, the University Choir sang Christmas songs and President Zumberge read the King James version of the Christmas story.”
When the lights were switched on, the crowd gasped and clapped, she says. “At the close of the ceremony, you could hear people singing carols as they walked back to their cars and dorms. It was truly an exciting event, especially for me, my committee and the entire Student Foundation.”
The next year, SMU’s signature holiday event was renamed Celebration of Lights.
Below is coverage of the first event from the 1978 Rotunda. These photos and videos of the 2015 Centennial Celebration of Lights capture the magic of this joyous Hilltop tradition.

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