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Furman holiday traditions, past and present

by Kate Dabbs ’09, Contributing Writer

Unlike its college neighbor Bob Jones, Furman does not quite burst forth in a magnificent holiday spirit each year. For most, it’s a time for hunkering down and academic rigor. Students are taking exams, and faculty are grading them.

Still, Furman is not devoid of Christmas traditions, although many have come and gone through the years.

The Greenville Woman’s College celebrated Christmas with many rituals that were lost when the school became part of today’s united campus in the early ‘60s.

According to emerita professor Judy Bainbridge’s book Academy and College, GWC students took only two days off from study for the holiday but hosted an annual Christmas Soiree where they invited male students from the Furman campus down the road. Anticipation began in September for the gentlemen hoping to get dates.

In 1933, the “Hanging of the Greens” became a major Christmas event. Students spent days gathering laurel, cedar and holly to make garlands and wreaths to decorate the campus. Senior Order, a leadership honor society for women started in 1937-38, was placed in charge of the Hanging of the Greens in 1946.

During the 1930s, there was also a campus-wide medieval feast served by the home economics department while the drama department presented the “Oxfordshire Mummers Play.” The celebration included a Yule Log, a roasted boar’s head, and a “Lord of Misrule” appointed as master of ceremonies.

DuPre Rhame, founder and director of Furman Singers 1946-1970, conducted an annual performance of Handel’s Messiah each December. For this performance, Rhame combined the Singers with the adult choir from Greenville First Baptist Church and invited Singers’ alumni to join in.

“McAlister was always packed, usually several hours before concert time,” said Bingham Vick, Jr. who succeeded Rhame. The annual performances were changed to biennial to allow the music students to perform other Christmas oratorios.

Hugh Floyd, current director of Singers, continues this tradition every other year.

Furman President John E. Johns and his wife, Martha, led an annual “lighting of the yule log” ceremony throughout Johns’ tenure.   Following a Christmas-themed dinner in the dining hall, faculty, staff, students and friends would gather lakeside for carols led by the Singers.  Before a great bonfire, President Johns recited the story of the yule log and invited participants to toss a sprig of greenery in the fire for good luck.

Since the early 1990s the Furman Chamber Choir, led by Bill Thomas, has presented “Lessons and Carols” in the Daniel Chapel annually in Daniel Chapel. The popular music-and-worship service has been free but required a ticket.

Another tradition that continues today is the Moravian Lovefeast. The ceremony began some 25 years ago after students from North Carolina shared stories of Old Salem’s Moravian customs. The early apostolic tradition, which includes the serving of Moravian buns and coffee and the lighting of beeswax candles crafted in Old Salem, is still thriving.

Former Furman chaplain Jim Pitts remembers a particularly meaningful Lovefeast when a student who had been severely injured in an automobile accident painfully used two hands to raise his beeswax candle. Pitts also recalls a more lighthearted occasion when the candles set the Advent wreath aflame in Townes Lecture Hall in then un-remodeled Plyler Hall.

In recent years, former president David Shi became known for his reading of The Night before Christmas. “When Dr. Shi began to read from his podium, there was an incredible silence as the students listened intently, completely rapt by his reading,” said Scott Derrick, director of the Trone Student Center and Student Activities.

Past years have included such Furman University Student Activities Board-sponsored events as gingerbread house contests, snow machines by the library, carriage rides with the president, and mug upon mug of hot cocoa. The organization has also sold raffle tickets for trips to Christmas at Biltmore.

This year Rabbi Alana Wasserman celebrated the Chanukah season with the Jewish Student Association, sharing latkes, lighting the menorah, playing the dreidel, and singing Chanukah songs.

There are many ways to enjoy classic carols, the Greenville Chorale’s Christmas concert among them. Students and visitors also enjoy going to the Alumni House and mugging with the statue of Richard Furman, which is decked out in Santa hat and scarf.

The university also embraces a spirit of service during the holiday season. The Heller Service Corps sponsors the Holiday Giving Tree project that offers opportunities to provide gifts for the agencies the Corps supports.

Specific needs are included in a gift list, placed on tags and hung on trees scattered throughout campus. All participating agencies are invited to campus for a luncheon and are presented the gifts and cash donations that have been gathered. “It is an amazing program and we are so appreciative of the kindness and generosity of our students, faculty and staff,” said Nancy Cooper, coordinator for volunteer services.

Last updated December 5, 2012
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