20191202 Hemm Tree Lighting - TYim

John J. Hemmingson Center's annual Christmas tree lighting raises concerns about energy sustainability at Gonzaga.

Grandiose ornaments, looming branches and iridescent lights. Yes, you’re right, ‘tis the season and the Hemmingson tree, like always, is at the core of the on-campus holiday spirit.

“I love it. I think the bigger the better. With the tree lighting, everyone gets excited,” said junior Grace Descourouez. “It has a form of community and I think Christmas brings happiness. The happier people are the more they want to hang out with each other.”

The tree, located in the John J. Hemmingson Center, is one of the many holiday trees on campus, however the logistics that lie behind it are far more extensive than any other. 

“So, we have the skeleton that we construct first and then the branches, and then decorating,” said Sam Groth, building coordinator. 

Starting at 9 a.m., it took about eight to nine hours to construct the tree according to Groth. A team from maintenance aided Groth’s team, as well as the GUEST Suite upstairs and their volunteers.

The time and effort that is poured into the tree is evident in its gleaming glory.

The Christmas tree stands tall and mighty in the Hemmingson Center from exactly a month before Christmas until Three Kings Day on Jan. 6, the day that marks the arrival of the three wise men in Catholicism. Each year the Gonzaga community gathers in Hemmingson’s rotunda to watch the tree lighting that is accompanied by  student-led carols.

However, despite the familiarity over the Hemmingson Christmas tree a new question arises in as community concern for environmental consciousness increases: how does sustainability juxtapose itself with tradition?  

“It’s hard because a lot of what sustainability is, is pretty inconvenient to a person,” said Ellen Bradley, vice president of Fossil Free Gonzaga. “It goes against tradition but I think it opens up this huge realm for creativity and the way we celebrate and honor these traditions.”

Fossil Free Gonzaga is a club dedicated to requesting that the school divests from fossil fuels.

“Energy-wise, powering the tree is not sustainable at all,” said Bradley. “I think that it’s hard because it’s associated with the university, being a Catholic holiday, that it makes sense that they would want to celebrate Christmas in this way.”

That being said, Groth said that Hemmingson is a LEED Gold Certified building.

“How the building is constructed is in its sustainability. All the wood comes within 500 miles. You’re only 30 feet from natural light with all the glass windows,” Groth said. “This building is one of the more sustainable buildings on campus.”

However, Bradley brings up the common misconceptions that circulate around sustainable LEED certifications.

“In a lot of ways it’s sustainable because it has that certification but a lot of issues with LEED certification is that you have to pay for them,” Bradley said. “All of that money could have been spent making Hemmingson more sustainable.”

According to her research and experience, Sustainable LEED certifications can cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Her main point is that this money can rather be allocated for investing in things that truly matter to environmental advancement such as solar panels, more water-efficient toilets, and more.  

“Claiming the Hemmingson building is sustainable by putting that Gold LEED certification on one wall in the entire building does not make up for things that they do in the building, like having a Christmas tree that’s lit for a couple weeks straight,” Bradley said.

Yet, despite the criticism the festive tree brings, Hemmingson is open to hearing suggestions on how to bridge the gap between tradition and sustainability.

“As far as making it more sustainable, we haven’t had much of a conversation,” Groth said. “I don’t know how we would, but if anyone has any ideas and wants to help out that would be great.”

Bradley has two great starting points to preserving both the joy of the season as well as the energy consumed.

“Limit the light usage,” Bradley said. “If you’re going to use lights all the time, make sure they are super high energy efficient lightbulbs. Maybe when students aren’t around unplug them completely. Have some kind of conversation around it. Provide a realm for students to talk about how their families celebrate these traditions, or other holidays for other faiths, and talk about other ways to be more sustainable in doing so.”

In the traditional aspect, the tree remains a symbol of holiday spirit and togetherness.

“I think once it’s up, it adds a lot to the building,” Groth said. “It’s humungous, you don’t really see trees like that. Especially with the rotunda and how open it is, I think it’s awesome. And so, it is what it is. I think at the end of the day the tradition will keep going.”

Going forward into a new decade there are hopes that further discussion will influence the evolution of holiday traditions.

“I think both sides are totally fair. I would just hope that we have a further conversation about it and everyone is heard,” Descourouez said. “Bottom line, the environment is my priority and even though I love the Christmas tree I think that there’s ways in which we can be in conversation and have a happy medium between both.”

Valerie Fetzer is a staff writer. 


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