Fun Facts about the Holidays at Duke

Trees, elaborate cards, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah music are part of Duke’s festive history

To celebrate the holiday season, Working@Duke searched through Duke University Archives’ collections for festive campus traditions and discovered these fun facts.

Selling trees and holly

The Duke Forestry program has held a Christmas Tree Sale since 1969, when it first sold trees, pine cones, mistletoe, holly and other decorations next to the Biological Sciences Building. In 1969, Duke Forestry students painted the East Campus bridge to advertise the sale, and 200 white pine trees were trucked in from the Blue Ridge Mountains and longleaf pine cones were collected near Fort Bragg.

Trees were sold at $1 a foot, and the first sale in 1969 made about $1,162, which was used for the Forestry Club’s speaker costs, community service projects and the annual banquet, according to Duke Forestry documents in the Archives.

The Society of American Foresters Duke student chapter did not sell trees in 2016, but in 2015, individuals could pre-order Fraser fir Christmas trees and wreaths from the society and pick up their orders in Duke Forest after Thanksgiving.

Keeping with Kwanzaa’s principles


Photo courtesy of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture's Facebook page.

In December of 1993, the Duke Black Student Alliance’s printed newsletter, “Revelations,” published an article about Kwanzaa, which states the holiday “beckons us to come together and foster our majesty and splendor as a race.”

The Black Student Alliance held a Kwanzaa celebration in the Bryan Center for years, according to event fliers stored in Duke University Archives from the 1990s to early 2000s. During the events, a meal would be served and performances would include Brazilian martial arts, the Black Student Alliance step team, African drummers, poetry and Duke Karamu, which showcases African-American culture through theater at Duke.

Today, Duke’s Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture incorporates Kwanzaa traditions into its end-of-semester study break for students, faculty and staff. Participants help light the Kinara, a candle holder representing African origins and the seven days of Kwanzaa, Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. The center also displays The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, also known as Nguzo Saba in Swahili: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).

Playing festive carillon music

On the last day of Hanukkah in 2015, Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta captured the Duke Chapel bells in the midst of Maoz Tzur, a traditional Hanukkah song sung after the lighting of the menorah.

Duke Chapel’s 50-bell carillon, installed in 1932, is played weekdays at 5 p.m. and before and after Sunday worship services, special events and for holidays such as Advent, Christmas and Hanukkah. Duke’s carillonneur, Samuel Hammond, has been playing the carillon since 1965, when he was a Duke undergraduate, and Hanukkah music has been part of his repertoire for about 30 years.

Other Hanukkah traditions across campus include Jewish Life at Duke’s annual Latkapalooza event. About 200 students and staff members attended Latkapalooza in December 2016 at the Loop Pizza Grill in the Bryan Center. The Freeman Center for Jewish Life’s dining staff prepared 1,500 latkes for the celebration, including 500 handmade sweet potato latkes.

Sending historic holiday cards

Duke Archives is home to dozens of holiday cards collected from presidents, schools, departments and offices around Duke. One of the most notable holiday cards sent in 2000 was from Duke President Nannerl Keohane and her husband, Robert.

The card incorporated a series of proposed union and dormitory drawings for West Campus, dating back to 1924. The drawings came from the Philadelphia architectural firm of Horace Trumbauer and chief designer Julian Abele, an African-American architect who designed much of Duke’s West Campus. To see the full card and zoom in, click here.

Debating holiday lights

During the energy crisis of the 1970s, when America experienced fuel shortages and high fuel prices, President Richard Nixon addressed the nation in November of 1973 and asked individuals to reduce home heating, decrease driving speeds and cut back on ornamental outdoor lighting, to include holiday lights.

Days later, Duke President Terry Sanford addressed the campus community, saying the university was taking steps to minimize its fuel consumption but would not deprive itself of lighting its annual Christmas tree, a decision that drew national political debate and media coverage.

“We will abbreviate the hours of lighting our Christmas tree,” Sanford shared, “but we will insist on our right to draw strength and joy from this annual symbol of the season of peace on Earth and goodwill toward all people.”