This story is part of our Orientation 2012 special issue. Check out our complete guide to life at Columbia here.
Let’s face it: Many of you may have come to Columbia with plans to escape campus every weekend for the bright lights of Times Square, the hallowed halls of the Metropolitan Museum, or, for the more adventurous bunch, Brooklyn. But before you hop on the 1 train, why not learn a little about some of the beloved traditions the University has developed over its 258 years? Whether heartwarming or humorous, these annual events offer chances to bond with friends, faculty, and that guy you once borrowed a pen from in your Econ class.
The Annual Alfred Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest
If your new best friend, a creative writing major, starts to get on your nerves with his constant fretting over whether their existential, thought-provoking poetry is really any good, kindly direct them toward the following tradition. The Philolexian Society hosts its Bad Poetry Contest a week before Thanksgiving and encourages participants to come up with their best, worst original poems in the hopes of receiving the title of poet laureate. If you’re hoping for a seat, arrive early, as it’s held in 309 Havemeyer, the classroom of Spider-Man and Mona Lisa Smile fame. If the concept of “bad poetry” is still fuzzy to you, you’ll just have to see for yourself. Cast any doubts aside—we promise it’s worth your time.
Tree Lighting and Yule Log Ceremonies
Columbia really does shine in the traditions department when the first chill of winter hits campus. During the first week of December, students and faculty alike gather on College Walk to celebrate the illumination of its trees following speeches by special guests and performances of holiday favorites by a cappella groups (last year’s rendition of “All I Want for Christmas is You” by the Kingsmen was a must-hear). The trees stay lit through late February, lending a festive glow to campus even after second semester commences. Immediately following the outdoor ceremonies, students head over to John Jay Hall lounge to ring in the lighting of the Yule Log. And to top it off, who except the Grinch could resist sipping free cocoa in the presence of friends while listening to readings of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore, CC 1798, and “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” by Francis Pharcellus Church, CC 1859?
Midnight Breakfast at Barnard
While late December holds the promise of hot chocolate for breakfast and family viewings of Elf, the bad news is that there will be many a long winter’s day holed up in the depths of Butler Library beforehand. The good news? Barnard’s faculty knows this, and thus plans an annual breakfast feast at midnight on the eve before the first day of finals to show their weary students that they really do care (housing aside). LeFrak Gymnasium transforms into a themed buffet (à la Midnight in Paris and superheroes), where tables brim with the foods you’ve been craving for months. Picture powdered sugar doughnuts, scrambled eggs, an ice-cream sundae bar, and even vegan offerings. While Barnard students do get first dibs on the spread, the entire Columbia community is invited to join in the festivities soon after. In the scheme of your college career, you definitely don’t want to miss out on a chance to have President Spar serve you pancakes.
Before (or after) you have your fill of processed sugar and comfort food at Midnight Breakfast, it’s essential to attend Orgo Night. Rowdy students pile into Butler Library, overheated and overflowing with crumpled papers in the wake of Reading Week, as the clock nears midnight. Soon after, the Marching Band (self-titled “The Cleverest Band in the World”) enters in high spirits, banging drums and blowing horns at 11:59 p.m. to ring in the organic chemistry final, billed as one of the most, if not the most, challenging classes offered. The comedy skit that follows is interspersed with rousing musical numbers, as students stand on desks and join in poking fun at the year’s events and perpetual campus stereotypes. Get your head out of the books, and join the band as it proceeds to host impromptu dance parties on both sides of the street before making its way to camp outside President Bollinger’s residence. For this free-spirited tradition, don’t worry about getting caught for being too loud in Butler’s typically silent corridors—the faculty somehow lets this event continue year after year, to the delight of those experiencing it for the first (or eighth) time.
Culinary Society’s Erotic Cake Competition
If your idea of tradition errs on the side of obscure and a bit raunchy, look no further than the Columbia Culinary Society’s Erotic Cake Competition, held each winter. Whether you want to put those baking lessons from your great-aunt Stella to use (just don’t go into detail when she asks what you’ve concocted), or taste test a slice of “Come Pop My Cherry” cake, you won’t want to miss out on this epicurean treat. Last year’s champions won the highest tally with their “Berrylicious” creation, complete with a rich berry fondant that paired perfectly with the flourless chocolate cake. They went home with a whoopie pie cookbook and six bars of gourmet chocolate. Could next year’s kinky chef extraordinaire be you?
Trust us: By midway through second semester, a school-sponsored excuse to cover your body in rainbow colors and run around campus like a happy lunatic will come as a welcome reprieve. Columbia borrows the tradition of Holi, or the Festival of Colors, from a Hindu custom in which participants throw colored powder on each other to rejoice the onset of spring. Thanks to the Hindu Students Organization, 1,500 pounds of paint make their way to Pupin Plaza early in the morning, and very quickly onto the clothes, faces, and hair of the students in attendance. If nothing else, the event serves as one of the few equalizers on campus, inviting students of all religions and backgrounds to learn a little about Hinduism while acting like wonder-filled children in the process (and the puzzled expressions of parents in tour groups is priceless).
This spring concert held on the steps of Low Library is one of those traditions that students love to hate. For weeks, even months before, they gossip and speculate endlessly about who the artists asked to perform will be. But that’s beside the point. Bacchanal is simply an excuse to celebrate the end of the year with your friends on a beautiful spring day, whether or not you know or care about who’s performing onstage (let us not forget that past artists have included Snoop Dogg—er, Lion—and Columbia’s own Vampire Weekend). So, come out in your best music festival attire, the colorful remnants of that morning’s Holi still dusting your hair, and revel in the music of that awesome band with that one hit song, you know the one…
The Varsity Show
As the academic year draws to a close, this over-the-top musical production will make you strangely nostalgic for the silly stereotypes and politically incorrect incidents that unfolded over the past nine months. Clichéd Barnard digs and Bwog jokes aside, Varsity Show will also make you proud to call a campus filled with a bevy of insanely talented and creative students home. Founded in 1894, it is one of the oldest Columbia traditions and calls upon the skills of the entire undergraduate community to bring it to life each year. A long list of distinguished alumni, many of whom went on to Broadway and shows like SNL once wrote, directed, or performed in the musical extravaganza, including legendary lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and I.A.L. Diamond, the only individual to write four consecutive shows (talk about an over-achiever). Whether you join the cast or enjoy an evening laughing and applauding with your classmates, this is one tradition worth getting in on during your time at Columbia.