‘The best part of the year’: Celebrating the Holidays Throughout the Years at Augustana

By Keeley Meier '20 | December 19, 2023
Yuletide 2023

On Monday, Dec. 18, Augustana faculty, staff, retirees and their families gathered to celebrate Yuletide. The evening began with a worship service in the Chapel of Reconciliation led by Campus Pastor Rev. Ann Rosendale ‘04. Santa Yuletide 2023Following the service, families made their way to the Ordal Dining Hall (ODH) in the Morrison Commons for a buffet-style dinner, presented by Augustana Human Resources in partnership with the Office of the President. 

The evening included cookie decorating for children, a henna artist, as well as appearances from Ole and Sioux Falls Santa. The wine was provided by JJ’s Wine, Spirits & Cigars.

A crew of AU employees began decorating the dining hall on Monday morning — lining the tables with linens and centerpieces, and placing votive candles and pine branches throughout the ODH. Augustana Dining Services worked hard to prepare the buffet, cookies and other treats.

Cookie Decorating“We had a crew helping us, and the same crew helped us tear down Tuesday morning so nobody had to stay late Monday night,” said Deanna Versteeg, senior vice president for human resources.

Yuletide, as we know it — a celebration of the holiday season with a buffet-style dinner for Augustana faculty, staff, retirees and their families — began in 2017, with the arrival of Herseth Sandlin. 

“Augustana is a relational place, and I'm a relational person,” Herseth Sandlin said. “I think that we need to find a time (to gather) after everyone has worked so hard — each time we finish an academic term. I just feel it's important that colleagues get together in a more relaxed environment with our families so we can all take a deep breath, express gratitude in different ways and catch up on what's happening in each other's lives in a really joyous environment.”

Henna TattoosYuletide has seen a few changes in the last few years, due largely to the pandemic. AU traded 2020’s in-person celebration for hot chocolate-themed goodie bags, assembled by the Augustana Advancement Team. In 2021, Augustana eased back into in-person gatherings by hosting a Yuletide Luncheon for employees only. In 2022, the university brought back the full buffet dinner, and retirees and employees’ families were invited to attend once again. 

“My favorite part is how happy people are,” Versteeg said. “They can hang out with their colleagues in a different setting, and I love that. When they're happy, that tells you, ‘They're appreciating this. They're recognizing that we care and we want to do the right thing to recognize people.’”

Santa and OleBringing the community together to celebrate Christmas has always been an Augustana tradition.

A Halverson Holiday

Dr. Bruce Halverson '66, Augustana’s 22nd president, and his wife, Nancy, former first lady, have nothing but fond memories of the Christmas celebrations they hosted during Bruce’s presidency from 2000-06.

“It was the best part of the year; it was always so much fun,” said Nancy.

The Halversons hosted two celebrations during the holidays at the President’s Residence on the corner of 37th Street and Grange Avenue. One was for students and the other was for the larger community. The celebration for students involved hot chocolate, cookies … and cafeteria tray sledding.

“Old trays ended up in the basement of the president's house — I think that happened during (Dr.) Ralph Wagoner's (Augustana’s 21st president) time,” Bruce said. “So, students would show up, we'd hand out the trays and they'd go sledding where the soccer field (Morstad Field) is now. I always seemed to get stuck most of the time, but I definitely did it, too.”

The Halversons

The Halverson’s second — and largest — celebration was for the community. They began planning in October, with a guest list of around 1,000 people. The celebration was open-house style and lasted two nights. Early on into their Augustana tenure, they added a third day — this one in the afternoon for those not wishing to drive in the dark.

The 3-day gathering at the President’s Residence included traditional Norwegian food, like lefse, as well as “a lot of treats.” The treats were a big hit with the Halverson’s son, Coal, who was less than a year old when Bruce became president.

“We would have this long dining room table with a tablecloth, stuffed with food, and Coal would go underneath the table,” Nancy said. “Suddenly, you’d see this little tiny hand come up, and he'd steal a cookie and go back underneath.”

The nights also included music, courtesy of Brad Heegel ‘76, then Augustana’s director of public events. 

“We had a grand piano in the house, and Brad would often just man the piano and play music all night, people would sing and it was just lovely,” said Nancy. “And, Coal loved Brad, so when Brad was playing piano, Coal would be right on his lap.”

For the Halverson family, though, the holiday celebrations were about more than the music and treats.

“My dad went to Augustana and was on the Board (of Regents, now Trustees), my brother went, my uncles went, everybody went to Augustana — it’s a long family tradition,” Bruce said. “I always viewed the presidency more like a calling as opposed to a job. That it was really a commitment to trying to serve South Dakota, Sioux Falls, the church and Augustana. And, with that, it's not a 9-to-5 job. It’s really a commitment to trying to create a life that's positive for the college and all those involved in it.

“So, all of these activities were important, but they were all heartfelt because that was part of our life,” Bruce continued. “It was not like a job. It was like a family tradition to do this at Augustana, and that brought great joy to us.”

Ornaments & the Olivers


The Halversons may have been the last family to live in the President’s Residence, but Augustana’s holiday celebrations remained strong with the arrival of President Rob Oliver and First Lady Angie Oliver in 2006.

The Olivers, who had been part of the Augustana community for many years prior to Rob’s presidency, recognized the significance of these celebrations and tried out several gathering styles at the beginning of their tenure.

“There used to be a huge pre-Thanksgiving turkey meal in the Commons for just the Augustana community that was hosted by Sodexo (Augustana Dining Services). A few family events were added, like the Christmas tree lighting outside the Commons,” Angie said. “But, we always had the annual President’s Residence Christmas Party, too.”

Holiday Tree Lighting

Eventually, the Olivers found their groove and put their own spin on the larger community celebration — hosting one long evening, instead of the 3-night gathering. They made sure to serve all the holiday favorites, including shrimp — “always shrimp,” said Angie. 

The President’s Residence was always spectacularly decorated, thanks to Angie’s dedication, keen eye for holiday flair and help from some friends. Each year boasted a theme, from red roses and snow globes to silver and gold. Angie said her favorite year was the Oliver’s last year — a nativity theme, courtesy of Jenny Meiners, then director of event services. 

“I think the nativity theme was really gorgeous, and I thought Jenny had a beautiful idea there,” said Angie. “Those are heirlooms — some people's nativity sets. I had a few, she had a few and a few others loaned us nativity scenes. And, we had a few ornaments that worked on the tree to bring the theme to life.”

Planning for the celebration required many people, and Angie often made the decorating process a gathering, too.

“I would invite some of my friends to come decorate for the day, and I’d bring lunch and snacks because we didn’t know when we’d get done,” Angie said. “A few staff members would pop over when they had a free morning. And, somebody would be assigned the tree and some would polish silver, and it was fun.”

The planning didn’t just happen around the holidays. Angie remembers keeping a binder of ideas that she would get from magazines and catalogs.

“I would tear out food ideas and neat-looking decor that looked like something we could make with what we already had,” she said.

Despite the days spent decorating — and undecorating — the Olivers, like the Halversons, knew that the celebrations centered around the Augustana community.

“There were people we only saw at that time every year; it was our touch point,” Angie said. “Otherwise, the community didn't get invited to just everything. It was sports, and it was homecoming, but often it's a class that has its reunion, and not everybody else comes to events like that. So, this was the community-wide event. It was fun to bring everybody together.

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