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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Evolving traditions of Winter Carnival stay true to ‘valuing the winter experience’

Originating within the Dartmouth Outing Club, Winter Carnival traditions have brought decades of College students together.

Specatators crowd around the Psi U lawn-rink to watch a student take a turn at the Psi U keg jump.

Specatators crowd around the Psi U lawn-rink to watch a student take a turn at the Psi U keg jump.

This article is featured in the 2023 Winter Carnival special issue. 

Among the vast array of Dartmouth traditions, the annual Winter Carnival is one that fully embraces the cold weather. From long-standing traditions such as ski racing  and the ice sculpture contest to newer events including Phi Delta Alpha fraternity’s Chili Cook-Off, students enjoy a weekend steeped in time outdoors. This is a brief history of Winter Carnival’s traditions. 

The beginning of Winter Carnival

In 1910, Winter Carnival was created as the “first field day of the Outing Club” by Dartmouth Outing Club founder Fred Harris ’11. According to current DOC president Piper Stacey ’23, the first year of Winter Carnival consisted of snowshoeing, skiing and a ski jump — which grew into competitive ski jumping.

“Those skiing competitions evolved into the national ski racing leagues,” Stacey said. “So Dartmouth and the [Outing Club] helped to found intercollegiate skiing as we know it today, which is kind of cool.” 

Men’s alpine skiing head coach JP Daigneault ’97 said that the first Winter Carnival ski race, which was held at Mount Moosilauke in 1922, consisted of two schools — Dartmouth and McGill University — but has expanded to include more than 20 schools on the East Coast. 

The early years of Winter Carnival introduced memorable traditions, such as the ski jump on the 13th hole of the golf course. Introduced the same year as the ski competition, an 85-foot steel trestle was built by the Boston Bridge Company for $5,000, according to Rauner Special Collections Library. While the National Collegiate Athletic Association discontinued ski jumping as a sport in 1980, it remained a fixture every year at Dartmouth’s carnival until the steel trestle for the jump was dismantled in 1993.

Another tradition introduced in the 1920s was the snow sculpture, which is built annually in the middle of the Green. Other groups on campus, such as Greek houses and residential dorms, also built snow sculptures during Winter Carnival, including a giant toilet sculpture built in the 1980s by residents of Gile Hall.

The now-discontinued “Queen of Snows” beauty pageant was one of Winter Carnival’s earliest traditions, beginning in 1923. The pageant was a contest in which 45 women, who were visiting from other campuses for the Carnival, were selected by 15 male Dartmouth students and then evaluated by students and “honorary judges”; the winner would be crowned at the end of the Outdoor Evening show on Friday. The show — which included ice skating by both members of the Dartmouth team as well as Olympic figure skaters — attracted thousands of spectators and was even televised in 1960. These events were so popular that in 1952, the coronation of the Queen of Snows and other Winter Carnival events created an eight-mile traffic jam to get into campus. 

After the College became coeducational in 1972, the arrival of women students — in addition to changing societal norms and a decline in the pageant’s popularity — led to the end of the tradition in 1973.

Recent additions and changes

Several new additions have been incorporated into Winter Carnival, some of which have become well-beloved. The Polar Bear Swim was started by Rachel Gilliar ’98 in 1994. In an interview with The Dartmouth in 2001, Gilliar said that previous students had secretly done polar plunges in small-scale events; during her freshman year, Gilliar wanted to officially add the Polar Bear Swim into Winter Carnival.

While the Polar Bear Swim was done clandestinely in its first year — without any official safety precautions or supervision from the Department of Safety and Security — Gilliar added that by 1998, students were already referring to the plunge as a tradition. That same year, the human dog sled race was also introduced to Winter Carnival.

The short-lived “keg jump,” in which  students would ice skate and jump over kegs on Psi Upsilon fraternity’s front lawn, originated in 1982 by brothers of Psi U. The event was discontinued in 2001 by the College due to safety concerns and the lack of insurance.

One of the more recent additions to Winter Carnival is the Phi Delt Chili Cook-Off, which started in 2011 to raise money for the Fisher House Foundation for military families, according to Chili Cook-Off chair Eli Smith ’25. Smith said that the competition — which College President Phil Hanlon has attended as a judge every year since he became president in 2013 — is the fraternity’s “big philanthropic event” and noted how it brings together the Dartmouth community and the town of Hanover.

“A lot of the other Winter Carnival traditions are exclusive towards students and people in the Dartmouth community, so including [local] restaurants and people in the Dartmouth community in the Chili Cook-Off is a great way of broadening bonds with Hanover,” Smith said. “So often we don’t interact with the [townspeople], and so I think bringing them on campus during Winter Carnival… [and] eating their chili is a mutually beneficial situation.”

Over the last 10 years, some traditions have been interrupted. In 2016, the snow sculpture was not built, which was attributed to the lack of snow and low student participation. After a three-year hiatus, an official snow sculpture returned to the Green in 2018. 

Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic affected the 2021 Winter Carnival, as programming was spread over the course of three weekends; traditions such as the Polar Bear Swim were also canceled due their inability to follow social distancing health guidelines. According to Daigneault, the ski race that year was also canceled due to similar reasons.

Previous years also saw high levels of indecent reports to Safety and Security; in 2016, there were 52 incident reports made during Winter Carnival. However, by 2020, Winter Carnival saw a small number of arrests and incidents, with 26 medical incidents that year. According to director of student involvement David Pack, the decrease of incidents could be a “combination of factors,” including the introduction of a hard alcohol ban in 2015 and planning by the Winter Carnival Council.

“I think it would be hard to pin it down to any single source, but I definitely can say that all Winter Carnival Councils over the years have been working hard to plan bold and enticing schedules to get folks engaged in safe fun [during] Winter Carnival,” Pack said. 

Although Winter Carnival’s origins lie within the DOC, Stacey said that the group does not have any official role in the planning of the festivities. However, she noted the overlap between the DOC and Winter Carnival organizers in their shared love of the outdoors.

“I love the emphasis that Winter Carnival puts on the outdoors and the beauty of the winter,” Stacey said. “I think that a special thing that keeps it tied to its roots in the DOC is the emphasis on getting people outside and making sure that there is an opportunity to recognize why we should be valuing the winter experience.”


Daniel Modesto

Daniel Modesto ’24 is the News executive editor. He is from Brooklyn, New York, and is a Native American and Indigenous Studies major modified with Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies.