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From the Archives: Holiday traditions, scandals and sentiments

, and | Monday, December 6, 2021

Diane Park | The Observer

The holiday season is always a special time on the tri-campus, as we ring in the first snow with a snowball fight on South Quad, string up festive lights in our dorms or eat a delicious Christmas dinner in the dining halls right before finals. Dorms, clubs and organizations host inventive holiday programming to spread the Christmas cheer, including Carroll Christmas’ horse-drawn carriage

In this holiday edition of From the Archives, we will look at the events and sentiments that have characterized the tri-campus community’s celebration of our winter wonderland. 

Observer archives, Dec. 10, 1976

The Christmas spirit at Saint Mary’s

Dec. 9, 1976 | Beth WelchNov. 30, 1984 | Julia Hewson | Research by Spencer Kelly

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Christmastime at Saint Mary’s College featured festivities, feasts, singing … and stuffed animals.

On Dec. 8, 1976, Saint Mary’s junior students conducted the “Christmas Animal Walk,” held annually since 1935. The junior girls dressed in nightgowns, robes and slippers and walked around to each of the dorms singing carols.

Following tradition, students of other classes placed stuffed animals outside their dorm room doors, facing away from the Church of Loretto. As the carolers walked by, they turned each stuffed animal to face the church.

Stevie Wernig, then-assistant dean of student affairs, said the stuffed animals had symbolic significance.

“The turning of the stuffed animal toward the Church of Loretto is a remembrance of the coming of the animals to the stable when Christ was born,” Wernig said. “The caroling procession is symbolic of the angels announcing the birth of the Christ child.”

Another beloved Saint Mary’s Christmas tradition was the Madrigal Dinner, an event featuring food and music from the Elizabethan era.

The 12th-annual edition, held on both Dec. 4 and 5, starred 20 performers and 14 servers dressed in period-correct costumes. The evening also included court dancers, harpsichord music and performances of other 16th-century instruments.

The 1984 Madrigal Dinner was held at the Haggar Hall Center, which was decked out in decorations and lighting designed to “create an authentic 16th-century atmosphere.”

Event coordinator Clayton Henderson said the dinner was the product of a collaboration from Saint Mary’s dance, music and theater departments.

“Everyone has come together from the different departments and worked just like a family to put this production together,” Henderson said.

These two events indicate the flourishing Christmas spirit at Saint Mary’s, something Wernig emphasized.

“Christmas here has a real tradition,” Wernig said. “Years after graduation, SMC girls remember the special ways we celebrated here.”

Axing the “X” in “Xmas”

Dec. 7 2007 | Karen Langley | Researched by Christopher Russo

Despite being a prominent Catholic university, Notre Dame’s Christmas decor is limited: a multicolored tree outside God Quad, garland throughout O’Shag and doors covered in wrapping paper. In December of 2007, Karen Langley (‘08) covered the installation of a 19-foot-wide holiday sign hung atop Pangborn Hall. The original sign read “Have a Phoxy Xmas” in purple lights.

The hall’s former rector, Kuukua Yomekpe, received confirmation from University maintenance workers that they would hang the sign, but no such action was taken. Yomekpe then received a call from associate vice president for residence life Bill Kirk, who told her the sign could not be hung as it was, so as not to “take Christ out of Christmas.” 

The sign was crafted in the months leading up to the holiday season by former hall president Allie Carrick (‘09). The term “Xmas” was used in order to appropriately balance the sign and cut down on costs. 

Kirk admitted that he did not think the students intended to be disrespectful, but he asserted that publicly visible decorations fall under the administration’s domain. Kirk and Yomekpe agreed to have the sign altered by the University carpentry shop. They axed the “X” and added “Christ,” paid for by the maintenance department. 

Observer archives, Dec. 7 2007
After administration demanded revision, Pangborn Hall changed their sign to include the “Christ” in “Christmas.”

Although the administration aired concern about the implications of replacing “Christmas” with “Xmas,” Fr. Gary Chamberland, priest in residence at Pangborn Hall, said the use of the letter X as a shorthand for Christ dates back at least 1000 years. He pointed out that X is the written form of the Greek letter chi. According to Chamberland, early Christians relied on the shorthand term Xmas when copying countless manuscripts.

Kirk acknowledged Chamberland’s historical perspective, but told The Observer, “At Notre Dame, can’t we have Christ at Christmas?” The article’s author, Langley, points out that the “keeping Christ in Christmas” sentiment is often expressed in mainstream Christian circles. When speaking with Langley, Kirk cited then Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly for popularizing the term “keep Christ in Christmas.” 

After altering the sign, it was installed on top of Pangborn Hall in time for the holiday season. Fr. Chamberland concluded that all they did was “change Christmas to Christmas.” Although 14 years have passed, Christmas decorations remain scarce across campus, which poses important questions: How much Christmas decoration has the University censored? What should Christmas decorations look like on a Catholic campus?

Last Christmas: a bittersweet season for seniors 

Dec. 9, 1968 | Joel Connelly | Researched by Uyen Le

For seniors at Notre Dame across the years, the holidays are a nostalgic time, as we celebrate our last Christmas on campus with friends and prepare ourselves for our last semester of college. On Dec. 9, 1968, Joel Connelly (‘69) reflected on what he deemed “The Senior Christmas,” those last few weeks of fall semester that mark the beginning of the end for seniors on their college journey.

Connelly first thought back to his freshman year, when winter break could not come soon enough, as his fellow Farley resident, Dave White, “would mark a giant ‘X’ through another day and then pronounce the number of days remaining until the hour of liberation.”

As an underclassman, Connelly took his time at Notre Dame for granted, as “there was in those days a security in the present.” In a matter of months, he would not be able to have those random long conversations in the middle of the night with his dorm neighbors and close friends. “Many have built an existence at Notre Dame on five or six close friends and perhaps an equal number of faculty,” he wrote, “whereas we are now tightly knit little groups we will soon be radically alone.”

The uncertainty of the future plagued Connelly’s mind. Connelly’s college years were backdropped by the Vietnam War, so on top of the usual job hunt that occupies seniors’ time, the prospect of the draft also loomed over Connelly and his classmates’ heads. 

Though looking ahead was unpleasant for Connelly, he also reflected fondly on his experience at Notre Dame, as over the years “a feeling has developed for this university. This affection is best manifested in the relationships we have developed while here.” 

Because of the friendships that had been cultivated throughout the years, the holidays brought a dread for Connelly and his senior peers. In an effort to protect their own feelings, many of his friends paradoxically expressed an interest in isolating themselves — a seeming coping mechanism to prepare for the impending separation post-graduation. Connelly observed that, at the senior Christmas parties, “instead of joviality there was a deadly solemnity.” 

However, for Connelly this solemnity did not detract from the holiday spirit but revealed the deep feelings of fraternity that had developed among his group of friends and a desire to establish direction. The Senior Christmas, for him, was an opportunity for reflection and imagination, wherein seniors “are going to be thinking of what lies ahead and in which direction we will be headed as the Golden Dome and its icon fade into the distance.” 

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About Uyen Le

Uyen is a senior at Notre Dame, studying English and Gender Studies. She is currently serving as the Leader of the From the Archives Project. Though she loyally follows AP Style in The Observer, on all other platforms, she is a strong proponent of the Oxford comma.

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About Spencer Kelly

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About Chris Russo

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