Speakers at the University of Oklahoma's holiday lighting celebration brought a multi-faith perspective to the annual campus tradition Monday, highlighting unity and understanding at the start of the holiday season.

Community members and OU leaders gathered at the university's David A. Burr Park for the lighting program, clumping around small fire pits to roast marshmallows, caroling with the small band and choir and listening to a message of unity from speakers.

Joe Harroz delivered the opening address in his first holiday lights program as the university's interim president, focusing on unity and acceptance in the holiday season. His message was underscored by the enormous holiday tree and menorah that stood to the side of the audience, both of which were lit toward the end of the program.

"In a time when people are taking differences and using them to divide us, in a time when so often, division is the order of the day, it is times like these when we get together ... and we show what the truth should be," Harroz said. "We show what our potential really is, and we talk a lot about how universities can simply reflect society, but also how universities should reflect our society's better selves."

The evening's theme of unity wove through the next three speakers' addresses, which focused on Christian, Muslim and Jewish holiday traditions. OU professor Allen Hertzke, who spoke about Christian holiday traditions, asked the audience members to consider how they can be a light to those around them in a season that's difficult for many.

"We know that this is a very stressful time for many of you ... and we all know that many students do struggle with financial stress, with loneliness, with depression, with illness," Hertzke said. "But everyone here can bring light to that darkness. Reach out, show a kindness, do an act of service -- that's the message of the holidays."

Yomna Helmy, president of OU's Muslim Student Association, painted a scene for the audience, walking listeners through the Muslim call to prayer and sharing some customs from the two Muslim holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

While both Muslim holidays fell during summer months, Helmy spoke of the lessons to be learned from observing them.

"As we sit here and share our experience, learn about our similarities and differences, unite as one university, let us smile and enjoy this holiday season, while also remembering those who are not fortunate enough to celebrate with us: those who live in war zones, those who are under siege, who sleep hungry," Helmy said. "For I believe the reason we struggle before we celebrate is to not take a day for granted."

Before the official lightings, professor Rhona Seidelman spoke of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, carrying on the theme of light and togetherness emphasized in Hertzke's address.

Hannukah will run from Dec. 22 to 30 this year. From Seidelman's address, the program segued into a menorah lighting as the choir sang.

"I love having eight days where I'm reminded that miracles can happen and have happened in various and surprising ways, and that there is light in darkness, and that light begins in the heart of the home," Seidelman said. "For the eight days of Hanukkah, in winter, when home and shelter are most enveloping and most important, we come together as a family in the evenings, we light candles, we sing blessings and songs."

After the tree was lit, Santa Claus introduced and plastic glow sticks passed around, there was one more thing for audience members and speakers to share: A song.

"Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me," the choir sang as the glow sticks waved.

Emma Keith366-3537Follow me @emma_ckeithekeith@normantranscript.com

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