The Purdue Memorial Union Christmas tree tradition takes on special meaning for one Boilermaker family
Darrell Smith has many special memories from nearly three decades of caring for the massive Christmas trees that are on display each December in Purdue Memorial Union’s Great Hall.
But his most treasured recollections involve how much his late wife, Tina, enjoyed the beautiful fruits of his labor each holiday season.
So when PMU co-worker Luke Versprille told Smith about his goal to someday use one of the lush blue spruces growing in Smith’s yard as the official Union Christmas tree, he recognized an opportunity to pay a special tribute.
If at least one of the trees grows to an acceptable height to fill the oversized space in the Great Hall — generally about 25 feet tall — Smith plans to offer it for donation.
“I think it would be something,” Smith says. “It’s not so much for me as it is for my wife. She loved coming to see the Christmas trees, and she’s been gone now for seven years. It would mean a lot.”
And it would be especially appropriate coming from someone who has done more than any current Boilermaker to sustain one of the university’s most beloved traditions.
For approximately 90 years, across multiple generations and eight university presidents, the Purdue community has gathered around the PMU Christmas tree to sing carols, take family photos or have breakfast with Santa to kick off their holiday season.
Behind the scenes it’s Smith, a Purdue maintenance technician, who ensures the tree is ready for its moment to shine. His seasonal duties include helping workers squeeze the giant tree through PMU’s front doors, watering the tree and helping students decorate it.
“He’s one of the best employees we’ve ever had here,” says Zane Reif, senior director at PMU. “Everybody loves him. He’s probably got the largest part of the tradition of anybody on campus.”
“It’s one of those things that is just such an honor to be a part of,” says Eva Melendez, president of the Purdue Student Union Board, which organizes many of the Union’s holiday festivities. “As a history major, something that I really value is the traditions on campus. It’s really interesting to see how they’ve grown and changed, but at the end of the day, there’s still this thing that brings our community together.”
As Melendez points out, traditions evolve — and PMU’s holiday tradition is no different, starting this year with the way the tree enters the building.
Dating back to when the tradition began in the 1930s, a collection of up to about 30 workers would gather to tug the tree through the Union’s front doors. It was always quite a sight and would draw a crowd of onlookers.
This year, the workers will use machinery to maneuver the tree through the doors, a change that Smith said should be safer than the previous method.
Something that I really value is the traditions on campus. It’s really interesting to see how they’ve grown and changed, but at the end of the day, there’s still this (tree) that brings our community together.Eva Melendez
President, Purdue Student Union Board
The tree-lighting ceremony will also change a bit this year, with additional activities that should appeal to local families. Once the tree is lit and the ceremony is over, Reif says attendees will have opportunities to do holiday-themed crafts, take photos in the Union Club Hotel courtyard with Santa and Mrs. Claus, and enjoy holiday snacks while listening to carolers sing at the new ground-floor terraces outside the Union.
A relatively new tradition will also continue this year, bigger than ever. Reif believes Purdue had never decorated the Union’s exterior with lights until the COVID-19 pandemic, when the university avoided indoor events that would attract crowds to campus buildings.
The lights proved to be so popular that PMU brings them back each year. Reif says this year the Union and its adjacent hotel are coordinating on a decorative theme across both buildings.
“The Christmas lights at the Union always bring cheer,” Melendez says. “For me, spending so much time in the Union, sometimes it starts feeling like a workplace. Being able to just walk through the building at that time of year, it just fills you up with warmth.”
Those adaptations aside, PMU’s holiday traditions will carry on much as they always have.
The Christmas tree is still locally sourced, as it has been since 1975. Before that, Purdue bought the trees either from local nurseries or from as far away as Wisconsin.
The Purdue Student Union Board’s Spirit and Traditions committee director Sarah Thompson still conducts site visits with PMU staff and the university arborist to assess the viability of the trees offered for donation. Once they establish a candidate pool, Thompson’s committee votes to determine which tree is chosen.
This year’s tree actually comes from the Purdue campus. The students selected a tree near Hillenbrand Hall, on a site Purdue designated as the home of a soon-to-be-constructed residence hall.
“Our biggest thing is the height of the tree,” Thompson says. “And then on top of that, the tree itself can’t be around any wires or poles or anything that makes it difficult to remove. But other than that, we try to pick a tree that is more aesthetically pleasing just because the more branches it has, the easier it is for us to decorate.”
This year, the tree will arrive in the Great Hall on Monday, Nov. 27, with PMU offering a free hot cider bar and opportunity to decorate a snowman ornament to those who come to watch. Once the tree is in place, that’s when Smith and the students on Thompson’s committee truly go into action.
Smith is responsible for decorating the top half of the tree, which occasionally requires some creative thinking. He uses a mechanical lift to reach the upper portion of the tree but still has to hang some ornaments by reaching out from the lift with a stick that has the ornament dangling from a nail. He also chuckles about the method he and former PMU co-worker Chelsea Schwab devised for hanging tinsel, where they would throw the tinsel off the Union’s second-story balcony toward the tree and then blow it onto the tree using a leaf blower.
“It ends up everywhere,” Smith says with a laugh. “You don’t always hit the tree.”
Meanwhile, students from the Spirit and Traditions committee spend the two days leading up to the tree-lighting ceremony wrapping the presents that surround the tree and decorating the bottom half. Their responsibilities include hanging the tiny pink mitten, which still has a passionate fan base years after Union hostess Ruth Krauch told generations of local schoolchildren stories about the tree decoration’s origins and relayed an invaluable lesson about sharing what you have with others.
“It’s a really cute story,” Thompson says. “Getting to be part of the committee that not only knows that story but gets to help keep it living on is very special to me.”
The Purdue Student Union Board’s other signature holiday event, Breakfast With Santa, will carry on this year on Saturday, Dec. 9, representing one of the only opportunities for local families to take free photos with Santa.
“It’s a really great way for our students to give back to the community as a whole,” Melendez says. “It’s a family-oriented event, and so we see a lot of people that we don’t typically see at Purdue Student Union Board events since typically we are trying to target our students. But this time around, it’s the Greater Lafayette area, and it’s really nice to see the families and alumni.”
Getting to be part of the committee that not only knows that story (of the tiny pink mitten) but gets to help keep it living on is very special to me.Sarah Thompson
Director, Purdue Student Union Board Spirit and Traditions committee
Passing on the tradition
As much as he has enjoyed his role as the Union’s tree whisperer — especially the opportunities to assist students — Smith knows there are only so many more holiday seasons left until he hangs up his lift and leaf blower.
He knows the time is approaching when he’ll need to train a successor to take over the tasks he has so enjoyed while assisting the students through the years.
“It makes me feel good that they still want me to do it,” says Smith, who estimates that he has handled tree preparations for the last 24 of his 32 years at Purdue. “I’ve got a few more years here before I retire. I’m gonna have to teach somebody what I do at that time of year because it’s not just dig it all up and decorate the tree. You need to know where everything is located, and you have to be organized. It’s just second nature to me now.”
But before he retires, Smith still has another goal to accomplish. He’ll need assistance from Mother Nature for one of his blue spruces to grow another few feet taller so that it would fit the available space in the Great Hall and serve as the Union Christmas tree.
What a poetic conclusion that would be, both for the man who has sustained the tradition for all these years and for his spouse who loved it so much.