What Does It Take to Start a Tradition?

How College Walk’s Tree Lighting Ceremony came to be.



On long winter nights, the twinkling, light-wrapped trees on College Walk are a comfort in the dark. But did you know that the Tree Lighting Ceremony — a night of food, music and activities counting down to the first moment of illumination — is one of Columbia’s newer traditions, only beginning in 1998?

While the trees along College Walk have been lit during the late fall and winter since at least the 1980s, there had never been any celebration or fanfare to accompany the lights turning on. But in fall 1998, with Ferris Booth Hall demolished and Lerner Hall under construction, students without a central meeting hub were looking for a way to create connections outside of the classroom. Charles Saliba ’00, the CC’00 class president, says, “I always felt our class needed extra opportunities to come together; I was trying to build a sense of community since we didn’t have a physical place to do it.” He thought that the trees, which had been lit during his two previous winters on campus, were beautiful and there had been a missed opportunity for festivity. Thus, the Tree Lighting Ceremony was born as Saliba and his fellow Columbia College Student Council members decided to make the first night of lights a campus-wide event.

Saliba describes the planning as a “mad dash,” as the organizers worked to get everything from budgets to entertainment to marketing ready quickly. The effort paid off, with more than 250 students at the first big countdown. Because the event had never been done, there was a bit of a learning curve — like when the organizers realized that the Facilities staff member responsible for the “on” switch was underground with no view of the event. “We had to scream loudly so he knew when to turn them on!” Saliba recalls with a laugh. “I think when we did that countdown, there was quite a long pause — probably six or seven seconds.” (A two-person team manned with walkie talkies provided the solution for a smooth countdown the following year.)

When Lerner Hall opened in 1999 and students once again had a designated student center, the fun and camaraderie of the Tree Lighting Ceremony continued, and it remains a Columbia tradition to this day. “I must admit, I’m very proud!” Saliba says. “When I was in school, I never could have fathomed that my way of contributing would create an event that persists and has become a staple. It’s a very positive event, a feel-good thing, and it brings people together. It’s not often that you stop and get together and get to celebrate.”