Friday, December 15, 2017

Some CMU Holiday Traditions

By Frank Boles

In its 125 year history Central Michigan University has celebrated the end of year holidays and the winter months that followed in a variety of ways. No one celebration has spanned the entire history of the University but many were long lived, and important themes remained unchanged.

Perhaps the earliest, and the most long-lived tradition, was a semi-formal dance held in December. The first documented dance was held in 1926. Proceeds from the dance were given to charity, a tradition that continued specifically with the dance for many years, and would be reflected in many other traditions that would develop over the years.

The first dances were campus-wide events. In the 1950s fraternities and sororities began to sponsor the event, and in the 1960s and 1970s various residence halls held dances. In the 1980s the tradition disappeared, with the last residence hall dances held in Barnard and Beddow Halls, as well as a few events sponsored by different fraternities.

As dances began to fade in popularity other events came to the fore. One of the most long-lived was the winter carnival. Held in February, the carnival featured a variety of games, floats, dances and other events. Snow sculptures were an integral part of the festival, as were “sort of” outdoor sports, such as broom hockey. The carnival was first held in 1939 and eventually ended in the early 1980s. 

One part of the carnival, however, survives to this day.  In 1979 the event featured a “polar plunge”, a fundraiser for Special Olympics where particularly brave (or foolish, depending on your point of view) individuals jumped into the ponds in front of Rose Arena. The polar plunge is still with us, including the idea of recruiting sponsors whose contributions will go to charity, assuming the person who they sponsor really does the deed!

A bit less exhilarating, but far more practical, was the Christmas Coffee sponsored by the Association for Women Students during the 1950s and 1960s, where everyone was invited to come an enjoy a bit of holiday cheer (at least as much cheer as can be derived from a cup of coffee).

A more satisfying feast was the Madrigal dinner. A madrigal is a music composition of the Renaissance and early Baroque eras. The annual holiday tradition took songs from this era and combined them with a “feast.” First held in 1977, the event featured costumed entertainment, as well as a themed meal. The event was last held in 1994, when ticket sales failed to generate sufficient revenue to fund the event.

Beginning in 1902 and continuing into the 1960’s CMU was home to a Training School, a facility where future teachers could hone their skills on real students. As did almost every elementary school of the era, the students put on a holiday entertainment for their parents. First graders dressed up as elves delighted their parents, pretty much regardless of what actually happened on stage.

Members of the campus community first began to collect items for the community charity Christmas Outreach in the 1980. The Wesley Foundation and St. Mary’s Church took leading roles in gathering clothing items on campus to be subsequently distributed throughout the community. The University’s involvement in the program grew over the years. In 2005 Finch Fieldhouse became the center for distributing the many items to members of the community. Finch continues to serve in this role each holiday season.

Fun, fellowship, and giving are all part of the CMU’s holiday traditions.

Happy holidays to all from the staff of the Clarke Historical Library.