One of my favorite memories is the year my college roommates, dorm allies, and I led a petition to bring a pine tree into the main lounge just before the winter break. This was Oberlin College in Ohio, famous for it’s liberal arts and socially liberal or progressive traditions — the first U.S. college to educate women and men together, admit students regardless of race, and, I heard, the first college to have a co-ed dorm.
All the other dorms had decorated trees. We didn’t. We lived in a program dorm called “Third World House” that was both a “political and cultural community.” Most of the juniors and seniors in the dorm were down for the cause and the revolution, but not down with a
Christmas tree. Their opinion of the tree was also shared by our dorm director. As freshmen, some of us felt the need for a certain holiday and cultural security blanket especially after spending our first Thanksgiving away from home. Plus what was wrong with having something beautiful to look at and make our dorm just a little more like a… home? Perhaps we would be imposing our cultural values and experiences on students who didn’t share them, but….(sigh) Why couldn’t we have a tree like everybody else?
When we approached the dorm director about the tree, he suggested that we make a political exercise of it. Start a petition, campaign for the tree, and if we could secure a majority in supprort, we would be allowed to purchase a tree for the dorm lounge.
The first order was a campaign narrative for our target audience that went to the root of the symbol – the tree itself. My roommate, now an attorney, argued that the tree is first and foremost a “pagan symbol of fertility”; its origins were not connected to the Christian religion. We also made the case for beauty, and bringing the outdoors indoors. The evergreen was a symbol of life in the bleakness of winter. And some of those Ohio winters were pretty bleak.
We drafted our petition promising that if we were successful, our little group would take responsibility for pick up, decoration, and disposal of the tree.
The third step, if our petition was successful, was a little fundraising.
It turned out the campaign wasn’t as hard as we thought it would be. In fact, some people found our efforts and enthusiasm amusing enough to sign on. We got our signatures, collected donations, and then set out to find our pagan symbol. One of the upper class persons who supported our petition, and also had a car, volunteered to drive and do the halling.
Ohio has beautiful pine trees. This is something I discovered when we pulled into the
Christmas tree lot. My driver walked around and pulled out the perfect tree. I mean perfect. It was a tall, green pine in the shape of a perfect triangle. Just like the ones you see on the cards. But it was beyond our budget. We settled on a very tall, sturdy Austrian pine (see photo), the tree of choice for all the other dorms on campus. The tree was strapped to the top of the car and we headed back to town.
I found a trash can to anchor the tree. Somehow we got it to stand. We didn’t have ornaments. But it turned out several classmates were willing to improvise with me. The ladies brought their drop earrings, either the ones that were missing their mates or the jewely they didn’t wear often. I made paper roses from colored paper I had on hand. And when I ran out, I switched to toilet paper. An exchange student from Japan sat on the floor and folded origami animals.
What made the tree work, was the community it brought together in the effort to bring a little beauty into our temporary home.
Our dorm tree would never make the cover of Martha Stewart Living , or even grace Martha Stewart’s fireplace. Still, it is one of my most happy Christmas memories.
We made the case for bringing back the light – the origin of the holiday season. The light is community, love, beauty, peace, courage, hope, faith, compassion.
May the light shine bright for you during this holiday season and peace for all on earth.