Annual tree lighting unites TCU, Fort Worth Communities
By Tori Couch
Brad Thompson remembers when the TCU Christmas Tree Lighting took place in front of Sadler Hall. The event drew mainly TCU community members who gathered around a smaller tree than the one used today.
“When I was a student here, everybody had a candle, we sang Christmas carols,” said Thompson, who graduated from TCU in 2004. “It was really cute but very small and very different from what it is today.”
Thompson moved to a behind-the- scenes role in 2008 and will work his 16th tree lighting this year. He helped move the event from Sadler to the then 1-year-old Campus Commons in 2009. It has remained there since.
Over the years, the trees have been as tall as 42 feet, instead of the 20 feet from Sadler Hall days. The event features a tree lighting and fireworks show and has recently drawn estimated crowds of 11,000-14,000 people, said Thompson, former director of TCU’s student activities office, who is taking on a new role
as executive director of community relations and university events.
TCU students and alumni make up a large portion of the tree lighting attendees, but Thompson noted the event has become a holiday tradition for many Fort Worth families.
“It’s just interesting to see how it’s grown over the years,” he said. “It means a lot to people. It’s an important part of their holiday season. A lot of people tell me it kicks off their holiday season.”
The 2023 lighting will take place Tuesday, Nov. 28, and look very similar to past years, with food trucks, a holiday-themed craft table for kids, refreshments, photo opportunities with SuperFrog Santa and a fireworks show.
A musical artist is scheduled to perform as well, but details were not available when 360West went to press. Thompson said he hopes a livestream of the tree lighting will also be available as part of TCU’s 150th anniversary celebration.
Of course, snow will make its annual appearance.
“We gotta have that,” Kelly Lee, assistant director of student activities, said. “I feel like people look forward to that now, too.”
Lee received her undergraduate degree from TCU in 2015 and has been involved with the tree lighting for nine years. Thompson said he will continue helping with events like the tree lighting in his new role.
Lee and Thompson did mention a few changes that might catch the eye at this year’s lighting, including a new tree topper and a taller tree. The tree will be 50 to 52 feet tall and arrive on campus by mid-November, Thompson said.
Getting the tree to campus is a long process and includes an 1,100-plus- mile drive.
The tree usually comes from Michigan near Grand Rapids. A
vendor drives around looking for trees, which could come from someone’s yard or a parking lot, Thompson said.
“They will send me pictures of two or three trees and then we will work with our student government officers to pick the tree that they like,” he said. “Then, they’ll cut it down and ship it down to us in November on a flatbed.”
The tree and a crane are carefully wheeled into the Campus Commons under the Brown-Lupton University Union Auditorium archway. After the tree is set upright, a nearly weeklong decorating process begins.
Lee mentioned another potential change for this year’s event connected to the overall layout. Details are still being fleshed out, but she hopes to move the music stage away from the tree and up near Frog Fountain. This would make it easier for attendees to see the tree up close and take pictures near it.
The tree lighting goes through a few small changes every year, but the heart behind the event remains the same, Thompson said.
Lee’s face lights up while talking about the tree lightings she attended as an undergraduate student, like the year when real snow fell or the time she took a photo with a reindeer.
She started working the event as a graduate student at TCU, joined the Student Activities office after graduation and has helped shape the event into a similarly memorable experience for students.
“A lot of students, their staple remark when they graduate on our exit survey is, ‘My favorite memory is the tree lighting,’” she said. “They are truly starting to hold on to that event.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 tree lighting, Student Activities and other offices on campus put together a holiday event offering themed activities and a movie night. The event could not completely replace the tree lighting, but it served a familiar purpose.
TCU brought the tree lighting back in 2021. Students and Fort Worth community members alike watched an extended fireworks show and felt a unique sense of unity.
“We’ve always had large crowds with the Fort Worth community,” Lee said. “But I think that year truly cemented ‘This is something I can come to with my family’ and it gave them hope.”
When: Tuesday, Nov. 28
Where: TCU’s Campus Commons Timeline of Events:
- 6:15 p.m. — Campus Commons opens 6:30 p.m. — Concert Performance
- 7:10 p.m. — Tree Lighting Ceremony and Fireworks Presentation
- 7:25-8:10 p.m. — Concert Performance
The event is free and open to the public. No tickets are required for admission.