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Rotunda Christmas Tree serves as a longtime symbol of Flagler's holiday spirit

Dec 15, 2022
by Anna Boone

The Rotunda of Ponce de Leon Hall is a magnificently ornate and spacious focal point of Flagler College’s campus. And every holiday season since 1985, the College has sought to decorate the space with an equally spectacular Christmas Tree that serves as a constant symbol of Flagler’s holiday spirit for students, employees, and alumni alike.

“The tree used to sit in the middle of the Rotunda, on a round platform approximately two feet tall, with nothing but lights on it,” Dan Stewart, former director of student activities, said.

In 1993 Stewart challenged all of the clubs and organizations on campus to create ornaments to decorate the tree, and a special group assigned by the Student Government Association would decide on the best club ornament with a cash prize for the club’s account as an incentive.

“SGA was also responsible for wrapping large boxes to go around the bottom covering up the platform,” Stewart said. “There was a decorating night where hot cocoa and cookies were provided by SGA and carols were performed.”

Vintage Rotunda Christmas Tree

These traditions continued through the turn of the century. But when the Ringhaver Student Center opened in 2007, a new tree was introduced into the latest addition on Flagler’s campus.

“The one in the Student Center became the one where clubs and organizations placed their ornaments,” Stewart said. “Ornaments were kept from year to year to cover even more of the tree, at least those made well enough.”

For a brief window of five years, the task of bringing a tree into the Rotunda and decorating it was left without someone to guide the process.

In 2012, Sam Palmer ‘04, director of Flagler’s brand experience and merchandise licensing, was working to coordinate the experience for celebrations of the Ponce’s 125th anniversary. During these preparations, she had the ambition to bring back the tradition of hosting a Christmas Tree in the Rotunda.

“I got a wild hair and said, ‘let’s buy a tree and decorate it’,” Palmer said.

Palmer’s rendition of the Rotunda Christmas Tree adopted a few changes. The tree now sits in the corner of the Rotunda, it is decorated lavishly with ornaments and details themed to match Flagler’s colors, and it goes up every year during the opening week of St. Augustine’s Nights of Lights so students have plenty of time to admire it before leaving for the semester.

2022 Rotunda Christmas Tree

“I think having the tree in the rotunda now brings a sense of home to the students who walk through,” Palmer said.

Palmer said she remembers the original tree from her time as a student and always admired the spirit it brought into the Ponce.

 “It brings me so much joy,” she said. “It warms my little heart every time a student walks by and says ‘I’m so glad you guys are putting the tree up’.”

Beginning in 2015, Nikki Liberatore ‘12, manager of Flagler’s Legacy shop, began assisting with this massive task. And for the past seven years, the duo has diligently spearheaded the job of bringing out the tree and all of its trimmings come November.

Even in 2020, when the building was closed to the public, there was such an admiration of the tree and the holiday spirit it brings that former President Joyner asked Palmer and Liberatore to continue the tradition.

“We were like, ‘Why are we going to put up a tree? We don’t even have tours going on, there’s no one coming in and out of the build’,” Palmer said. “And President Joyner said, ‘the tree has to go up’.”

Since Palmer took on this project, the Rotunda Christmas Tree has become a focal point for events during the Holiday Season like the alumni reception, faculty and staff holiday party, and for some time the New Year’s Eve Ball.

“There’s just something about that tree,” she said. “Without it, it’s not Flagler. You can’t celebrate the holidays in the Rotunda without it.”

From its debut during the early days of the Flagler, through the tradition of decorations by student groups, and into its new era under Palmer, the Rotunda Christmas Tree has claimed its place in the Ponce.

“The tree is an important part of our history now,” Palmer said.

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