A Timeless Tradition, Socially Distanced: How Student Foundation Adapted Celebration of Lights

The song ‘Silent Night’ rang out across Dallas Hall Lawn on Monday night as the SMU community kicked off the holiday season. Electronic candles were flickering, the Christmas tree was lit, and everyone sang along to holiday favorites. SMU students and community members gathered inside white boxes spray-painted across the lawn, joining together, while staying distanced.

The 43rd Celebration of Lights festival on the SMU campus looked different than in years past. Students wore masks, all musical performances were limited to two people, and SMU President R. Gerald Turner and Student Foundation Campus Events Chair Eliana Abraham sat six feet apart on stage.

The festival is a beloved tradition for many students and a bookend to fall classes. Abraham and her team, who planned the event, made sure that the celebration would still take place in person despite the coronavirus pandemic.

“[Planning this event] in one word has been meaningful,” said Abraham. “At the end of the day, COVID-19 is still a thing and still happening in this world, but I think what’s so important is that we are also focusing on coming together as a university in a smart and safe way before we head home.”

For Celebration of Lights, Abraham’s committee created a virtual live stream, planned in-person events including carriage rides, and replaced the usual real candles with electronic ones to decrease close contact. Their biggest goal was to keep this event all in one night, while accommodating as many as 2,000 guests on the lawn.

“The committee, especially with COVID, has done a phenomenal job of adapting and being able to put on an event like this for the student body,” said Student Foundation’s Vice President of Programming Nick Fontela.

During the event, President Turner addressed the SMU community to wrap up the semester and encourage students. He also said that he “doesn’t know a Student Foundation group that has done more” in regard to the planning of this tradition.

Many students and alumni were impressed with the execution of the event. Kayleigh Dilworth, in Class former Student Foundation President and SMU 2020 alumna, attended the event this year. She said that it was one of her favorite events during her time at SMU and this year was no different.

“The sense of unity you feel when you sing ‘Silent Night’ and seeing the whole area light up and seeing Dallas Hall I think is something that every student feels is really special and connects everyone,” said Dilworth.