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BY HOPEY FINKJanuary 7, 2014

In the weeks after Christmas, “tradition” becomes a hazy and indulgent sort of word. As the last of the holiday cookies are devoured and the Christmas tree is taken to the curb, we shuffle into the dreariness of January and look forward to whipping out the word “tradition” with our decorations next holiday season. This year, I’ve found myself reflecting on other ways in which tradition is lived.

Like many schools, Georgetown University is steeped in tradition. It’s impossible to walk across campus, much less go through four formative years of life, without feeling the echo of that word in your ears. While Georgetown’s traditions abound throughout the year, from the excitement of New Student Orientation in August to the antics of Georgetown Day after classes end in the spring, they have always seemed most truly alive to me in December. The combination of end-of-semester stress and anticipation with the inherent festivities of the holiday season makes for a student body ready to embrace a December calendar full of things we label as “tradition,” even during the last week of classes, study days, and final exams.

Right after Thanksgiving break, students come together to transform campus into a “Winter Hoyaland,” blasting Christmas music as they hang wreaths from our dreary library and string lights around lampposts. Against this magical backdrop, special events are woven into the drudgery and pressure of final papers and studying: a cappella groups give casual performances outside the library late at night, the dining hall serves a Midnight Breakfast, and student organizations hold end-of-year parties and galas. On the last day of classes, before the realities of study days set in, the university holds its annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in the historic Dahlgren Quad, a favorite holiday tradition among students, faculty, and families alike. The entire Georgetown community is welcome to this celebration of the season, complete with musical performances, a theatrical rendition of A Christmas Carol, and plenty of hot chocolate to go around.

This year, as University President Jack DeGioia flipped the ceremonial switch to illuminate the enormous tree in the middle of the quad, dozens of people dropped to the ground around the tree. For four and a half minutes, attendees of the ceremony were unsure whether to turn their attention to the remarks being given by DeGioia and Fr. Greg Schenden, S.J., or to the “die-in” being staged under their feet. The protestors, a diverse group of mostly students, lay on the hard, wet ground to represent the four and a half hours that the body of Michael Brown lay on the street in Ferguson, Missouri, after he was fatally shot by a police officer in August. Silent, nonviolent die-ins like this were being held across the country that week, after grand juries failed to indict the officer involved in Brown’s death as well as the officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man.

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Photo by Mesbah Uddin

After lying around the Dahlgren tree for four and a half minutes beneath a misty drizzle and the soft light of the quad’s streetlamps and Christmas lights, those participating in the die-in stood up, chanted the now-familiar “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace,” and walked calmly out of the quad, away from the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony. Murmurs ran through the crowd, and the festivities continued as scheduled.

The next day, I overheard someone say, “I’m in favor of advocating against police violence and supporting the victims’ families, but why did they have to do the die-in during the Christmas Tree Lighting? Why disrupt that tradition? Why couldn’t they have done it during the day? In Red Square [Georgetown’s free-speech zone]?”

Like this stranger, I am in favor of advocating against police violence and supporting the victims’ families. It is encouraging that issues of racial inequality and justice reform, among others, have been pulled into national consciences and conversations in the past few months. But I also understand that these issues are far more nuanced and complex than I could explore in this blog post, and I know that as a white college student I am perhaps not the best person to do this exploring. I can offer my personal reflection on the small but powerful way that reality and urgency was breathed into these complicated discourses on my campus for those few moments on a December evening.

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Photo by Mesbah Uddin

I disagree with the main point of the stranger I overhead. Holding that brief but poignant demonstration during an annual university tradition was powerful, not disruptive. The traditions that truly capture and captivate are not those that can be listed neatly on posters during Homecoming Weekend. Traditions are deepest when they go beyond an action or an activity, when they embody an idea. More important than the flipping of a switch and the singing of carols is the act of coming together; that’s where the charm in the Christmas Tree Lighting tradition has always come from. We come together to celebrate, but we also come together to challenge, and these two things need not be mutually exclusive.

As a Jesuit university, Georgetown fosters an environment where students are challenged to engage in the world and become men and women for and with others, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized. Actions like the December die-in are reminders that this mission is alive, not simply a catchy phrase on the school’s website. The tradition of solidarity is dynamic—and we have to constantly reimagine how to best advocate and come together—but it’s always relevant.

 

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