Creighton — how the campus found Christmas

Nov 30, 2021

Read about Creighton's history with the holiday — including some fun details about a wayward tree and a Grinch redeemed.

Featured Testimonial About Creighton University

Scenes from Creighton Christmases past.

I had taken the tree for my own personal decoration, and after reading the front page of the Creightonian, only then had I realized the error in my ways.

The campus Grinch

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Snowy Christmas on campus.


By Micah Mertes 

For decades, Creighton has celebrated Christmas with many beloved traditions — concerts, carols, holiday Masses, volunteering with local charities, and, of course, the annual lighting of the Christmas tree and Mall.  

But it wasn’t always so. In the early years, Creighton ran a bit short on campus Christmas traditions. The holidays were just another break when the students went home and the Jesuits left campus to visit family.  

Yet somewhere along the way, Creighton found its Christmas spirit, embracing a series of yuletide traditions that have endured (and evolved) year after year.  

This is the story of the campus that found Christmas. 

Christmas at Creighton 

If Creighton’s Christmas spirit has an official start date, it’s around December 1923.  

That’s when the newly created Creighton Student Union first delivered Christmas baskets, providing meals for 700 Omahans in need.  

The spirit of generosity grew from there. Through the CSU, students continued to hold raffles and dances to raise money for local families each year. Creighton’s holiday philanthropy was later formalized into the “Christmas Spirit Campaign,” with causes taken up across campus.  

The Creighton president called on students to “do something for God’s poor this Christmas.” 

Students decorate a Christmas tree in the 1960s.

Before long, it had even started to look a lot like Christmas at Creighton — holiday parties, decked-out halls, snowmen, Nativity scenes and a Christmas tree in front of Deglman Hall. 

A true Christmas heyday. But its days were numbered. 

According to historian Dennis Mihelich, this communal Christmas feeling started to falter in the 1960s. One reason was the building of Interstate-480. Another was the transformation of California Street into Skinner Mall.  

According to the Creightonian, both changes, at least initially, isolated campus a bit more from the surrounding community and, in turn, its holiday cheer.  

What would bring the Christmas spirit back to Creighton?  

The answer, in hindsight, was obvious —  

A really big tree 

The date of the first Christmas at Creighton is debatable and (based on the archives) a little murky. It either started in 1978 or 1984, depending on where you look and who you ask. 

The tree is installed on the fountain in 1978.

This is known: In 1978, Creighton installed a 20-foot pine Christmas tree on top of the newly constructed St. John’s Fountain. The tree was lit in a special ceremony.  

Yet for reasons unknown, the tree lighting of December 1984 is marked as the first official ceremony.  

(We do know with certainty, however, that the tradition of Creighton’s Christmas couch at Kiewit Hall started in 1982.

In any case, Christmas at Creighton was back in full swing by the 1980s. The next decade, it only flourished further.  

A recap of events ... 

1990 — The tree lighting ceremony grows more elaborate, with campus leaders speaking to hundreds of students at the event. “What we do when we light the Christmas tree is put light and warmth into the world,” said the Rev. Thomas Shanahan, SJ.  

1993 — The “Eternal Flame” sculpture is added to the St. John’s Fountain, moving the Christmas tree to the front of Creighton Hall. 

Snowy Christmas on campus.

1995 — Christmas decorations are taken down briefly so a film crew can shoot a scene for a CBS true crime movie starring Shannen Doherty.  

1998 — 60-degree temperatures make for the warmest tree ceremony yet.  

1999 — The final year for the Christmas tree lighting as Creighton knew it. 

The tree moves 

The first Creighton Christmas ceremony of the new millennium prompted a mild controversy. 

In 2000, new Creighton President Fr. John P. Schlegel, SJ, decided to move the tree again, this time using one outside the Kiewit Fitness Center as the University’s permanent Christmas tree. Fr. Schlegel cited environmental reasons for the change ... 

Why cut down a new tree when there’s a perfectly good one planted nearby? 

Despite the sound and sustainability-focused reasoning for Fr. Schlegel’s decision, many students had feelings. One student collected 635 signatures for a petition protesting the tree’s change of location.  

Fr. Schlegel at the tree lighting ceremony.

Fr. Schlegel, for his part, was both apologetic and amused by the students’ reaction. In a Creightonian interview, he jokingly referred to himself as “the Grinch who stole your Christmas tree.”  

Controversy aside, the ceremony was a success, launching a new tradition. And anyway, by this point Christmas at Creighton no longer hinged on a single tree. The ceremony had gone campus wide. (You get a good sense of its evolution from this collection of photos.)

The following year, Creighton added 6,000 lights around the Mall. It built a Nativity scene. It put a bright star on top of Creighton Hall. It hosted Mass and a concert and served Christmas cookies and hot cocoa in the Skutt Student Center.  

In the 20 years since, decorations and festivities have continued to grow.  

Tens of thousands of lights cover campus and the beautified 24th Street corridor. Creighton recently kicked off the season with the Celebration of Light ceremony (which you can read more about here). 

Creighton’s very own Grinch 

If there’s a single event in the University archives that summarizes Creighton’s whole history with the holiday, it is perhaps this ... 

Twenty years ago this December, a Christmas tree in front of the Student Center fireplace was stolen just a few hours after it was set up. The Creightonian wrote a story about the theft and included the text of a sign left in the tree’s absence: 

“The tree that stood in this spot was stolen … This display was intended for the enjoyment of the entire Creighton community, especially the students who are away from home during the holiday season. Congratulations to the thief for showing their version of the Christmas spirit!” 

Creightonian headline about returned tree.

A few days later, the tree was returned, with an apology attached: 

“I had taken the tree for my own personal decoration, and after reading the front page of the Creightonian, only then had I realized the error in my ways.” 

The letter was signed, “A Creighton student with renewed holiday spirit.” 

Christmas at Creighton in a nutshell — the trees are always moving, but the meaning of the season remains right where we left it. 

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Stories like this wouldn’t be possible without the help of the University Archives, the keeper of Creighton’s history. Please consider making a gift to the Archives and helping us preserve Creighton’s amazing story for generations to come. 

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