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College fraternity celebrates season with live nativity

Sara Kitchen Published on 09 December 2013


The month of December is often referred to as “the most wonderful time of the year.”



With finals wrapping up and the semester coming to an end, many college students would agree that “it’s the hap-happiest season of all.”

For members of Alpha Zeta Fraternity at Penn State University, the month of December is a time for its members to give back to the community through the Holiday Lights Tour.

The Interfraternity Council of Penn State University created the Annual Holiday Lights Tour in the year 2007. Families from the community travel from house to house on a trolley service.

The tour serves as a way to showcase the 47 fraternity houses as they compete for recognition in a holiday-themed decorating contest. Many fraternities choose to decorate their houses with lights, but Alpha Zeta does something a little different.

An honorary, professional, co-ed, agricultural fraternity, Alpha Zeta has 24 active members in the Morrill Chapter at Penn State University. Brothers and sisters of AZ are very active within the College of Agriculture and the agricultural industry.


Surrounded by agriculture their entire lives, members aim to stay true to their upbringings and rely on their faith. When it came time for them to plan the theme for the Holiday Lights Tour in 2011, they relied on their faith to lead them in the right direction.


Since the year 2011 and continuing into the present, they’ve done more than just hang some Christmas lights from the house’s four white pillars. They have assembled a live nativity scene in the front yard of the house.

On the night of the tour, brothers and sisters of Alpha Zeta dress as Mary, Joseph, wise men, shepherds and angels.

Costumes are assembled with different types of fabric, and twines are used as belts to hold the pieces together.

Unique trophies from the fraternity’s history are used to represent frankincense, gold and myrrh. Dressing up is one of the highlights of the event. In fact, hours before the tour begins, the brothers can usually be found stomping around the house in their shiny purple headdresses and burlap sack robes.


Building the nativity takes some ingenuity from the brothers. Using leftover lumber found around the house and straw provided by Dustin Gates, the structure is built. The pine roof comes from trimmings from a local golf course, courtesy of alumnus Dan Frechen.

The nativity scene goes above and beyond the other houses’ bright lights and focuses on faith. In its first year, the presentation gained a lot of attention from the community and local leaders.

“State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham herself stopped by and talked with us for the better part of an hour about how impressed she was with the initiative we had showed,” says Nathan Ulmer, a 2013 graduate of Penn State and Alpha Zeta alumnus.

“The director of student affairs thanked us by email for being a light in the State College community and wished us a ‘Merry Christmas,’ not the politically correct ‘Happy Holidays,’” says Dan Hartzell, a 2012 graduate of Penn State and Alpha Zeta alumnus.

In addition to showing their faith, the nativity scene also gives members a way to promote agriculture and educate the public. A live calf is used in the nativity and always captures the attention of the community.

1813pd_kitchen_newborns “There were some amusing moments when the baby calf was referred to by passersby as anything from a dog to a pig to a sheep,” says Ulmer.

“We spend as much time educating the public about agriculture as we do getting them to remember what Christmas is really about.”

During the tour, members open up the house to the public and invite them in for hot chocolate, cookies and candy canes.

This provides an opportunity to talk to the community, answer any agriculture-related questions and share in the goodness of the season.

“The Holiday Lights Tour and our nativity scene are excellent ways for us to get back in touch with the community,” says Matt Reutlinger, the 2013 Alpha Zeta president. “Community to us means more than just State College.

It gives us another opportunity to connect with students, professors and alumni. The nativity scene is very much appreciated by all who visit and the university. In fact, there’s a picture of the house and the nativity scene in the HUB Robeson Center on campus.”

The nativity display is also helping to bring a positive light back to Greek life at Penn State.

“Many people have a negative connotation of fraternity life, and AZ stands out and apart from that negativity with its mission to spread the true meaning of Christmas,” he says.

This year the Holiday Lights Tour will be held on December 11. Alpha Zeta members anticipate the fellowship of the community and look forward to sharing in their faith and in the agricultural industry. PD

Sara Kitchen is a freelance writer in State College and a sister at Alpha Zeta Fraternity.

TOP RIGHT: Along with a nativity scene, Alpha Zeta decks the pillars and porches of its fraternity house with holiday lights.

MIDDLE RIGHT: For the 2012 nativity display, past AZ president and past chaplain Nate Ulmer brought a calf, Mildred, from his family’s farm in nearby Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.

BOTTOM RIGHT: On the night of the tour, brothers and sisters of Alpha Zeta portray Mary, Joseph, wise men, a shepherd and an angel. The wise men were Dustin Gates, Derek Nissley and Luke Salter. Joseph was portrayed by Colton Schiever and Mary by Jennifer Kreger. Benjamin Nason was the shepherd, and Meagan Slates was the angel. Photos by Bob Ferguson.