Virtual Star Trees ceremony brings light and warmth to Willamette community

by Paul McKean '11,

Instead of the usual crowd gathered on the north lawn, the 2020 lighting of the Star Trees was broadcast live to a virtual audience on YouTube.

  • president steve thorsett, chaplain karen wood
  • president steve thorsett, chaplain karen wood, blitz the bearcat, and mercedes hamilton

On a stormy November evening, a semester unlike any other drew near to a close with a familiar and comforting sight: the lighting of Willamette’s historic Star Trees.

This year’s ceremony was a little different. Instead of the usual crowd gathered on the north lawn, the event was broadcast live to a virtual audience on YouTube.

"Maintaining traditions not only honors our history, it brings a sense of comfort, especially during uncertain times,” says Willamette University president Steve Thorsett. “Continuing our long-standing tradition of lighting the beloved Star Trees seemed especially important to do this year.”

Star Trees at night with holiday lights on them

The virtual event was organized as a gesture of appreciation for the Willamette community after a challenging semester. It was moved up to before the Thanksgiving break so students could participate in the event from campus.

The festivities featured a virtual performance from the Chamber Choir, music from the Wind Ensemble and remarks by University Chaplain Karen Wood. Mercedes Hamilton, a member of the class of 2023, was selected in a raffle for the honor of lighting the trees as President Steve Thorsett, a group of friends and Blitz the Bearcat cheered her on.

The lighting was also incorporated into Willamette’s first virtual alumni holiday party, where President Thorsett delivered a toast to nearly 300 alumni gathered on Zoom to reconnect with classmates from around the world.

“To see so many from around the globe gather in shared tradition warmed the heart and gave credence to the strength of our community," says Reich.

For Karen Wood, the event was an opportunity to reaffirm a Willamette tradition, while looking forward to the future.

“This year, with so many of our traditions postponed, I hope the sight of the lit Star Trees provided a reminder of more normal years,” Wood says. “They represent the hope that next year we can all be out in the rain, churning up the North Lawn into mud, making s'mores, swilling hot chocolate and bringing used coats to donate as we await the countdown.”

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