‘The Mardi Gras of the North’: Why Winter Carnival’s Past Shouldn’t Become Our Present
Students and an alumnus weigh in on Winter Carnival’s past, present and future.
This article is featured in the 2023 Winter Carnival special issue.
Winter Carnivals of the past are often spoken of with hushed reverence. Tales are recounted of hundreds of visitors traveling from hours away and of television crews flocking to campus to document the festivities. In fact, in 1916 National Geographic dubbed it the “Mardi Gras of the North.”
Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would give today’s Winter Carnival such a lofty title. As I heard from current students, some pointed out that it’s considered to be the least fun big weekend when compared to Homecoming and Green Key.
Spencer Meek ’24 said that although he enjoys Winter Carnival, it isn’t as eagerly anticipated as other big Dartmouth events.
“I don’t know if it really has the hype for me compared to other campus events … it probably has the least amount,” Meek said.
Ellie Sullivan ’24 agreed, reflecting on the lack of campus awareness surrounding the weekend.
“You don’t even notice [Winter Carnival] is happening except for some ice sculptures and people going to [Occom Pond] for the Polar Bear Plunge,” Sullivan said.
There is no denying that the Carnival has declined in popularity over the course of its storied history. But can we even transform the weekend back into the eagerly anticipated event it once was? The seemingly obvious answer would be to bring back popular traditions from the past. For inspiration, I sat down with religion professor Susan Ackerman ’80 to discuss the activities that occurred during her undergraduate years.
“There were parties in residence halls, and the [Hopkins Center for the Arts] took very seriously programming during Winter Carnival with a lot of big concerts,” Ackerman said. “There was a ski jump on the golf course, and we’d all go to watch people hurl themselves off of it, which was very dramatic and exciting.”
Ackerman also remembered the popular custom of building snow sculptures across campus.
“We didn’t have as much to do [as students do nowadays] … so we all built snow sculptures,” Ackerman said. “People put a lot of work and artistic talent into them, and it was fun to go wander around and look at them.”
Hearing about these traditions may evoke nostalgia for Dartmouth winters of yore, but all things considered, it would be almost impossible to recreate Winter Carnival as it was during its heyday. Ackerman pointed out how many past events can no longer take place — and for good reason.
“There were not enough women for these men to date, so women were ‘imported’ from campuses like [Wellesley College], [Smith College] and [Mount Holyoke College],” she said. “As a women’s studies minor, I found it a really unpleasant weekend … I’m glad we don’t ‘import’ women and commodify them like we used to.”
Though we may have sacrificed some of Winter Carnival’s fanfare, we have made strides in including all members of the community in the celebratory weekend.
“The events that we have now are as inclusive as we can make them, so that everyone in our community feels comfortable partaking in the events that we produce,” Winter Carnival Council co-chair Lucas Gatterman ’23 said.
Even traditions that did originally attempt to include all students have now been abandoned due to societal changes, including an increase in the legal drinking age. For example, when Ackerman was an undergraduate, dorms were able to utilize their social budgets to host parties with alcohol.
“The drinking age changed to 21 instead of 18 … so drinking is not something that can happen all over campus as publicly in the same way,” Ackerman said. “You can’t use residence hall funds to buy alcohol for underage students.”
Similarly, students’ busy schedules mean that events like snow sculpture competitions no longer happen on the same large scale as they did during Ackerman’s time.
“The snow sculpture is nothing like it used to be,” she said. “If students aren’t motivated to build it because they have other things that are more pressing, it’s not going to happen… it takes lots of students.”
Some students pointed out how a few of the harmless old traditions could be brought back. Sullivan expressed interest in bringing back the sleigh rides, which used to occur on the Green, saying that “Winter Carnival would be better” if they were to return. Ackerman echoed this sentiment.
“There used to be a figure-skating competition on Occom that was quite famous, and even televised during the early days of television, which would be fun [to bring back],” Ackerman said.
These two ideas show that there are elements of past Winter Carnivals the College can draw on to shape its future. And even though current students may not think of Winter Carnival as their favorite Dartmouth event, the weekend often still holds meaning for the student body.
Winter Carnival Council co-chair Piper Gilbert ’25 said the Polar Bear Plunge was her favorite event during last year’s Carnival.
“I loved hanging out with friends beforehand in line and getting to meet new people, and actually getting to do it was so much fun,” Gilbert said.
Gatterman said that he loves the human dogsled and snowshoe races. As an announcer for the events at past Winter Carnivals, he enjoyed “coming up with jokes that were horrible but theme-related.”
“When I was a freshman, I helped to run these events, and I fell in love with how fun it is to watch people run around in flair and not know how to run in snowshoes,” Gatterman said.
Students have expressed hope for the future of Winter Carnival, offering suggestions that draw on old activities for potential new traditions to improve the weekend.
“It would be cool if there were some on-campus skiing or sled races or Iditarod dog races … or if there was a culinary component incorporated into Foco with local cheeses or shaved ice for the weekend,” James Hood ’23 said.
As we reflect on the Winter Carnivals lost to the past, Ackerman pointed out that the popularity of old Winter Carnivals does not mean they can, or even should, be recreated.
“Students always say ‘bring back the old Carnival,’ but it’s not that easy,” Ackerman said.