Why do we celebrate traditions? What are traditions? Did you ever think about why there are fireworks on the Fourth of July? What’s so special about Bastille Day in France and why is it a “traditional” holiday? What are the traditions in your family and even personal life? A good starting point to consider college traditions, which is the topic of this post, would be to define “tradition.” Here, in part, is what Merriam-Webster says about that:
- An inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom)
- A belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable
- Cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs and institutions
As they apply to higher education, college traditions best fit into the “customary pattern of thought, action or behavior” category with a touch of crossover into “cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs and institutions.” College traditions establish a thread of behavioral continuity across the years, decades and even centuries. As students participate in their schools’ traditions, they become more deeply woven into the fabric of their institutions’ student bodies and lore.
The Freeze Out
Of course, an Admit This! post wouldn’t be complete without a trip down Dave’s Amnesia Lane, so here’s my foggy recollection of some college-traditions behavior from my freshman year, back around the time the earth was cooling:
It was around 1:30 on a weekday morning in early September. My roommate, Greg, and I were sound asleep in 216 Asbury Hall. Suddenly, we were awakened by a ferocious pounding on our room’s door. I thought our dorm was on fire and we had to get out, so I jumped up, yelled to Greg and opened the door, only to be greeted by a sizable posse of upperclassmen armed with sadistic grins and a lone fire extinguisher.
After an immediate frosty, cloudy blast from the gang leader’s extinguisher that nearly froze my feet, we were ordered at high volume to grab our clothes and freshman beanies and “GET OUT HERE NOW!” We obeyed as fast as one can after being shocked into consciousness and bathed with a blast of CO2.
We were rudely herded down the dorm’s staircases, along with a group of other freshman victims, and out into the dark, humid, late-summer night. We seemed to be heading in the general direction of the women’s dorm. (Yes, “back in the day,” boys and girls, college students lived in gender-specific dorms. How quaint!) When we arrived on the lawn in front of the three-story structure, we were lined up military-style in a nice straight row.
The upperclassman leader, “Deuce,” he was called, then commanded us to sing our school alma mater at the top of our lungs to “serenade” the sleeping coeds. Fortunately, I had taken the time to learn the alma mater, which was required of all newbies. My dutiful discipline paid off because my Michael Bolton-like vocalization saved me from a second blast of CO2, which punished poor Greg, who couldn’t remember the words “with clarion voice of praise.”
As we sang, the dorm room lights started to go on, one by one, until the suddenly raised windows were filled with giggling females, some of whom yelled greetings to the men they knew below. At the end of our acapella apocalypse, we received a rousing ovation. Deuce took full credit for the concert performance and executed an elaborately deep stage bow. He then commanded us to march back to Asbury Hall, where we were told to get back in our rooms and keep our mouths shut about what just took place. The penalty for protest was the dreaded CO2 “freeze-out.” Greg and I complied, like the good freshmen sheep that we were. Quite an adventure.
We didn’t know that we had just experienced a college tradition. We thought it was just some hijinks conjured by bored and sadistic juniors and seniors who knew how to use fire extinguishers. Looking back now, it makes me smile. While it was happening, though, it seemed very weird.
Check These Unusual Traditions
Speaking of weird, or at least odd or original college traditions, I thought that I would note a few here today. This information is meant mostly for this year’s high school graduates who are headed to college campuses within a couple months. Perhaps this heads-up will keep you from being sneak-attacked this fall.
In keeping with “weird,” then, as I mentioned above, I’d like to cite a few items from a cool article I found: 13 of The Weirdest College Traditions. Some of these make my wee-hours beanie-wearing, acapella-singing and fire extinguisher-dodging extravaganza seem absolutely sane. To wit:
2. Dooley Day: Emory University (Atlanta)
Emory University’s school spirit is guarded by a rather surprising character: a skeleton from the biology department named James W. Dooley often called the Lord of Misrule. Dooley appeared for the first time in 1899 when he wrote a letter to the college publication, The Phoenix. Over the next few years, he appeared more and more often becoming a permanent fixture on campus in the 1940’s.
With multiple degrees form the university, Dooley has more power than Emory’s president in one very specific area. On an unspecified day, Dooley “walks” into classrooms across campus, accompanied by his guards, and wordlessly dismisses class for the entire university. Students are then treated by the administration to a day of fun on campus.
Highly anticipated, Dooley Day is by far one of the best days on campus and has, over time, become a week-long spirit celebration. Dooley is so important to Emory, that he has his own email address and his curriculum vitae is displayed online.
6. Healy Howl: Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.)
When the movie The Exorcist debuted in 1973, Georgetown University students were some of the most excited movie goers. Since parts of the movie were filmed on campus, their excitement was understandable. Over the 42 years since the movie first came out, that excitement hasn’t dissipated at GU.
Each Halloween, the movie is screened on campus and set to end just before midnight. Students immediately head to the campus cemetery and celebrate -- by howling at the moon. The Healy Howl, as it is known, is by far one of the eeriest college traditions and it can be heard throughout campus.
7. Birthday Dunk: Occidental College (Los Angeles, Calif.)
Birthday celebrations in college are generally filled with parties and dinners at Mexican restaurants but if you are a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Calif., your birthday is likely to also include some anxiety.
For years, student’s birthdays have been marked by their friends dunking them in The Fountain. The tricky thing about the tradition is that it can happen at any time. You could be pulled out of bed, the dining hall, or even class! The only guarantee about this tradition? You ARE going in.
9. Pterodactyl Hunt: Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, Pa.)
On an evening in early October, foam swords, garbage bags and pterodactyls are the ingredients for a college tradition unlike any other. The annual Pterodactyl Hunt on campus at Swarthmore College began as an inside joke, but quickly became an event on campus that few are likely to miss. Organized by Psi Phi, the science fiction club on campus, the event is a massive success each year.
Students act either as hunters or monsters and don either white or black garbage bags (called armor and required to participate) to differentiate themselves. Although there are very specific rules and characters, most students are more interested in running around and bashing each other with foam weapons.
11. The Primal Scream/Silent Dance Party: Carleton College (Northfield, Minn.)
At exactly 10:00 p.m. the night before finals start, the quiet town of Northfield, Minn., is rocked by the shrieking and wailing of the Carleton College students. The primal scream is the students’ way of blowing off a little finals studying steam before hitting the books again as if nothing happened.
If that’s not enough de-stressing for you, students have added a new, much more quiet, tradition in the past few years. At 11:00 PM on one of the two “reading nights” before finals, students sync up to a master playlist, put their headphones in and press play all at the same time. Then a massive dance party starts at the library and travels to other buildings on campus.
So, what will your traditions be?If you would like to get a jump on what to expect, use your always-handy search engine to probe the web pages of your new school and search for information on traditions. One final word, however. Unless you’re going to Reed College, I’ll bet you won’t find a tradition as weird as their Seventh Annual Nitrogen Day:
… Reed’s admiration for nitrogen seems worth a mention. Their outsized love for the chemical element goes back to 1992, when a group of students, troubled by “Nitrogen’s tendency to be overshadowed by flashy elements such as oxygen,” hosted the first Nitrogen Day on April 23. There was a speech titled “In Nitrogen We Trust,” hot dogs (nitrates, get it?) were grilled, and the band “Just Say N to O” played. The event remains a yearly tradition, though it’s always called the “Seventh Annual Nitrogen Day” because nitrogen is the seventh element. Today, students freeze things (like socks and other inanimate objects) with liquid nitrogen, hang in a beer garden with kegs “on nitro,” and even compose haikus about the element.
Have fun on campus this fall. And whatever you do, don’t forget your beanie!