de Wolff: Winter Carnival’s Seasonal Regression
Winter Carnival lacks spirited traditions comparable to its fall and spring counterparts.
This column is featured in the 2023 Winter Carnival special issue.
In a survey of the graduating Class of 2022, Winter Carnival placed last in students’ rankings of important Dartmouth experiences. This should not come as a surprise to any current students or recent alumni, as Winter Carnival’s traditions have been steadily whittled away with nothing to replace them in kind. At least the administration has deemed a two-minute sled race fit to stay, but such sterilized diversions will only ever appear in admissions brochures — never in one’s fondest memories of the College.
Maybe if Winter Carnival looked more like what National Geographic once called the “Mardi Gras of the North,” there would not be such a sorry state of affairs. Apocryphal stories of the weekend’s former glory abound, detailing visits of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Johnny Cash to Hanover during Winter Carnivals of days gone by. It seems unlikely that Winter Carnival, in its current lackluster form, would ever attract celebrities of such caliber again. But this should be our goal — to restore Dartmouth’s signature weekend to its former glory. To accomplish this, students must institute new traditions that are in keeping with the original spirit of the weekend.
At its core, Winter Carnival represents a vitalistic celebration of our survival in remote, hostile conditions. Despite being knee-deep in snow and freezing cold, we have survived here for over 250 years. This certainly does seem like a cause for celebration. And how do we celebrate? We pile heaps of snow – the symbol of this most unforgiving time of year — into a giant monument in the center of campus. Then we willingly expose ourselves to freezing cold water by jumping into Occom Pond via the Polar Bear Swim. Falling through the surface of a frozen pond would seem absurd most of the time, yet it is one of the weekend’s most in-demand activities. Never let it be said that Dartmouth students let common sense prevent them from having a good time! We do not run from the elements here — we brave them in a hardy assertion of our enduring presence in the face of nature’s challenge.
In recent years, Winter Carnival has lost its way. The constant struggle to get students to participate in building the snow statue is emblematic of this. As the weekend’s traditions are systematically culled or fall out of fashion, it is no wonder that students feel like Winter Carnival is much ado about nothing. Look at what was formerly another popular student tradition, the Psi Upsilon keg jump. Snow, skating and kegs — three enduring symbols of Dartmouth winters, all combined in one daredevilish expression of collegiate derring-do. Running for 19 years — older than the average Dartmouth freshman at matriculation — it was ultimately banned in 2000. When the Coed Fraternity and Sorority Judiciary Committee put a stop to the tradition, it was not due to any safety concerns stemming from the activity itself, but rather as a result of underage drinking and crowd control concerns. After all, God forbid college students might drink during a party weekend. Now, I’m not condoning dangerous or reckless activities, but such heavy-handed decisions to wholly eliminate the traditions that set the weekend apart are a key reason why our graduating classes now think so little of Winter Carnival.
Dartmouth’s traditions are one of its main appeals. It’s a large part of why I and so many other students chose to come here — and I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t like messing with our traditions when there’s no good reason to do so. But in this case, when Winter Carnival is lurching along as a shadow of its former glory, it’s time that students step in and right the ship. Not including the new impromptu tradition where we pray for snow, a serious poverty of imagination has struck the student body. We desperately need new traditions to supplement the few we have left.
Ideally, these new traditions will evoke the core qualities of Winter Carnival. The first “Winter Sports Day” appeared in 1910. Intended to promote competitive engagement with winter sporting staples such as skiing, it quickly evolved to contain a social program as well. While its bygone beauty pageant may have been the big draw for the crowds flocking to Hanover, its wintry activities were an ever-popular mainstay as well. To paraphrase an alumnus writing about the weekend sixty years ago, anyone can put on a Homecoming or a big spring weekend, but only Dartmouth can do Winter Carnival.
Weather permitting, a cross-country ski race open to students — think the Fifty on skis — would be perfectly in keeping with the Winter Carnival ethos of embracing the elements and proving one’s mettle. See the Polar Plunge for another prime example of this philosophy. Another tradition fallen by the wayside involved fraternities competing with one another to carve the most impressive ice sculpture on their lawns. A cash price more substantial than the current $200 offered for the contest’s winner may revive the competitive spirits of today’s more mercenary students and induce a new round of rivalries between Greek houses.
On the social side, Winter Carnival features some iconic events — see Alpha Chi’s Beach Party and Phi Delt’s Chili Cook-Off — but falls short of Green Key weekend in that few other houses host any unique themed parties. These kinds of parties set the weekend apart from the rest of the term’s social programming, and some, such as the Chili Cook-Off, can be held as sober events too. Finally, in the spirit of the season, even Dartmouth Dining is getting in on the action. The New England Harvest Dinner was a hit in the fall, and a festive, winter-themed sequel for Winter Carnival will help students feel as though there is something appreciably different about the weekend. Hopefully, this meal will be well-received, and serve as a memorable and enjoyable addition to the weekend’s programming. Large or small in scale, a concerted effort from the Dartmouth community to define this weekend as something more than another excuse to drink (that is, more than students already do) will go a long way towards changing things for the better.
Winter Carnival may provide fewer opportunities than Homecoming for the administration to press the flesh, and it’s a far cry from the sound and fury of Green Key — but it has a merit all its own just waiting to be rediscovered. In fact, Winter Carnival is defined by its legacy of student involvement. We choose the theme, we design the iconic poster, we build the snow sculpture and we swarm Occom Pond for a chance to leap into its icy waters. Winter Carnival finds its ultimate expression in the frenzied outpouring of creative energy from Dartmouth students. It’s time we put that energy to good use, and begin the work of elevating Winter Carnival to its once-vaunted position in campus life.