The event marks the official close of the university’s centennial celebration.
Today, Texas Tech University's annual Carol of Lights® brings to mind a scene of wonder: thousands of people coming together under the West Texas stars to sing Christmas songs, huddling against the brisk winter air. As the key moment nears, the crowd falls silent in anticipation. Then, in one magical instant, the illumination of 25,000 red, white and orange lights draws gasps and cheers from participants.
The meaning differs from person to person. For some, it's where they became engaged to their future spouse – a moment frozen in time. Others recount the successive years of attendance by their family, from toting infants through the crowd, to watching their children frantically wave at the Masked Rider, to standing beside their teenagers who will soon be Red Raiders in their own right.
It's such an integral part of the Texas Tech experience now that many forget, it wasn't always this way.
Seven decades ago, Christmas at Texas Tech was a much different observance. In the 1950s, Gene Hemmle, chairman of the music department, gathered students in the Science Quadrangle, where they sang carols, enjoyed cookies and hot chocolate, and that was pretty much it.
But in 1959, all that changed.
You see, in 1957, a Plainview businessman named Harold Hinn was appointed to the Texas Tech Board of Directors. Over the next 12 years, Hinn would become known for his work on the board's Building Committee, where he collaborated with university officials to plan and supervise the construction of several major campus facilities, including the current University Library, the School of Law, the Museum of Texas Tech and half a dozen residence halls. But perhaps most notable was his contribution to the Carol of Lights®.
Only two years into his term, Hinn took a trip to Kansas City, where he was wowed by the Plaza Lights – then four square blocks of the downtown shopping district decked out with Christmas lights every year. With the Plaza's iconic Spanish architecture, it's no surprise Hinn was reminded of Texas Tech and inspired to bring the idea here.
Arriving in Lubbock during the third week of December, Hinn initially donated the materials and paid for the labor to decorate the three campus structures of the Science Quadrangle: Chemistry, Science and the original Library (today, the Mathematics & Statistics building). When it was done, Hinn was so pleased he paid to have the Administration building done, too. The 5,000 lights used exhausted the whole available supply of lights and sockets in Lubbock and Dallas.
But by the time it was done, it was only a few days before Christmas; nearly all the students had gone home for the holidays and missed the display. The community didn't, though. The event attracted so much attention that, the following year, a group of Lubbock businesses chipped in to expand the ceremony. With these additional resources, the 1960 celebration grew to seven buildings – including East and West Engineering and Textile Engineering – and 11,000 lights. The Residence Halls Association added caroling and dubbed the event the Christmas Sing.
In 1961, the event grew to 16,000 lights and was officially renamed the Carol of Lights®. That year, a young Bill Dean was the student body president. University President Robert Cabiness Goodwin asked Dean to join him in flipping the switch at the ceremony.
“It wasn't anything like we have today,” recalled Dean, who retired in 2021 following a 54-year career with Texas Tech, including 40 years with the Texas Tech Alumni Association. “There was just a group of students assembled. I think they probably sang some Christmas carols, and then when it got dark, we turned on the lights.”
In the six decades since, the Carol of Lights® has grown beyond Hinn or, indeed, any of the people who worked to establish it. It has continued to expand and change, although perhaps not as quickly as during those first few years. Today, it features a 38-foot-tall Christmas tree, a 20-foot wreath, 3,000 luminaries surrounding Memorial Circle and 25,000 lights. Each year, it brings in more than 20,000 Texas Tech students and local residents.
And the 2023 Carol of Lights® is going to be the biggest and brightest yet – somehow capping even the spectacular that was 2022's official kick-off to Texas Tech's Centennial Celebration.
While last year's event reimagined the traditional program with live entertainment; new staging, lighting and sound; and even a fireworks display, the 65th annual event adds a drone show for a fittingly astounding finale to our centennial year.
It's sure to highlight not only the growth of Carol of Lights® but also the growth of Texas Tech itself – from a small, regional school that hosted a small carol sing to the internationally recognized university it is today.
In the midst of the excitement, in that momentary hush just before the lights come on, take a moment to remember how far Texas Tech has come, and how bright the future is.