Wheatley: A Little Holiday Magic

by Louis Wheatley | 11/27/11 11:00pm

About two weeks ago, long before cable news networks started squawking about "holiday trees" and Dirt Cowboy stocked up on eggnog, this holiday season's Christmas tree was planted in middle of the Green. It seemed to appear earlier than last year, and I can't help but notice its deteriorating health its inner branches are already becoming skeletal. I just hope that it survives through the annual Hanover Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Dec. 2. It is a local tradition that certainly doesn't match the hype of our major celebration weekends, but in spite of looming exams and final papers, more students should take a 20-minute study break and stop by this year's ceremony. I suspect that they will be surprised at what they find.

I might have missed the tree lighting last year if I had not been required to attend as a member of the Dartmouth College Glee Club, which sings traditional holiday carols at the lighting. I predicted that Hanover's version would be just what you might imagine a small-town ceremony with a small tree and few people in attendance, hardly holding a candle to New York's Rockefeller Center extravaganza. But I left having been part of one of the most enjoyable holiday events I'd seen, wondering why this experience was so different for me. What was the appeal of the Hanover Christmas tree lighting?

The whole evening certainly felt like Christmas. Thanksgiving had passed, so only a true Grinch could still be opposed to the Christmas music that the Glee Club sang. The crowd seemed to enjoy our caroling, whether they were singing along or simply listening to our mood-building elevator music and waiting in suspense for the lighting itself. Huddled under canopies, volunteers served free cider, hot chocolate and pastries, good enough reasons in and of themselves to show up. Only a light snowfall could have added more to the Christmas ambiance.

But the novelty of the great Christmas tree lighting is unsurpassed. A big red button rests on top of a candy cane pole. The wide-eyed kids envy no one more than the municipal official whose name we always forget who gets to press the button. This year, I will be tempted to start shouting "Touch the button!" to the freshmen in the crowd, though I mostly got that out of my system in October.

So while this Christmas experience seemed as traditional as it could get, it was actually a hodgepodge ceremony. Some were there for the carols (perhaps the religious traditionals, the winter pop medleys or the token Hanukkah song), some to mooch off of the free food, some for the multicolored electric light bulbs and some for Christmas itself. No matter what the spirit of the event meant to each person in the crowd, everyone felt a current of excitement rush between the bodies huddling for warmth.

Most importantly, it's a tradition that Dartmouth doesn't own. Unlike Homecoming or Winter Carnival, which are Dartmouth-dominated functions that attract local onlookers, the tree lighting is a tradition we share equally with a larger community or rather, that the rest of the community kindly shares with us. None of us are so fixed in our identity of student or townie; Christian, Jew or atheist; or adult, adolescent or child that we cannot share in an event that caters to some small simple joy in every person. There may not be much mingling between people in the crowd, but the moment when everyone gasps when the tree is lit unites the crowd on the most basic human level.

With Fall term ending before Thanksgiving next year, students will be noticeably absent from the ceremony's crowd. Many affiliated with Dartmouth will still be on campus, but the majority of students the group perhaps most removed from the local community will be sitting around their own Christmas trees instead. Though the tradition will continue in Hanover, students should seize their last chance to attend this year. Though traditions are not born and do not die easily here, I hope students push for another tradition of the Christmas tree lighting's sort that brings the same spirit of a fuller, brighter community, even for just one night.