Ghosts of Christmases Past: Scripps Traditions

By Megan Petersen '15, Copy Editor

The College’s legacy is a fascinating one. One facet of Scripps’ rich and interesting history is the old tradition of holiday parties in the dormitories.

The tradition of holiday parties at Scripps began with the famous Medieval Banquet in the Grace Scripps Clark residence hall. Director and Sally Preston Swan Librarian for Ella Strong Denison Library Judy Harvey Sahak (’64) explained this tradition. “Almosteveryoneinthehallwaspart of the production,” she said. “Whether they were part of a singing group or part of a skit...There were sword dancers, and there were tumblers.” A popular skit from year to year was one that told the story of St. George slaying a dragon.

The Medieval Banquet was not actually a full dinner, Sahak said. Only a plum pudding dessert, prepared by the hall dining staff, was traditionally served. In recounting the banquet held in Clark her first semester, however, Sahak recalled a few additions to the tradition. She said that they drank “wassail,” which was a non-alcoholic seasonal treat, probably little more than warm apple cider. At some point during the performance of singing and acrobatics, remembered Sahak, the door to the kitchen opened and a few students dressed as cooks came out, bearing a big platter which held a real roast pig! “The students had gone down to Chino and purchased a pig,” Sahak said. “It had been roasted, and [there was] a big apple in its mouth.”

Students would go to great lengths for maintaining the “accuracy” of the Medieval Banquet, and for entertainment purposes. “[The event] took on the appearance of a banquet in Medieval [England] and actually, it was fairly historically correct,” Sahak said.

The other residence halls also held parties. While Clark had their medieval banquet, the most formal and rehearsed event, Toll, Dorsey, Kimberly and Browning also held seasonal parties. The other dormitories’ holiday parties varied in their themes, though Dorsey’s was always had international inspiration and Kimberly was “Colonial Williamsburg.” Browning, Sahak said, had a Spanish bull fighting production, with candles in paper bags illuminating the roof and front walkway of the hall, which would be, as Sa- hak noted, “terri- bly illegal” today.

The production was “a gift, it wasn’t just for us to have something to do. [The students] really wanted this to be something special for the entire community.” Faculty, staff and their families were all invited to the dorm parties. Students were not throwing a party for themselves, they were throwing parties for the professors and other Scripps employees. “It was an opportunity to do something really worthwhile and show their gratitude to the community for providing the kind of living space that Scripps was at the time,” Sahak said.

After the hall parties, the festivities were not over. The Scripps glee club, according to Sahak, would go hall to hall around campus, caroling and gathering residents and guests as they went. The procession would carry candles and walk all around the campus caroling together. For several decades, the procession would end at a live depiction of a Madonna and child. Eventually, this concluding scene ceased, and the procession instead walked toward one of the fountains on campus and set their lit candles afloat.

After the guests left campus for their own homes, the holiday festivities were still not over at Scripps. Throughout the holiday season, Sahak said, each student was a sort of “fairy godmother” to another student, and would secretly leave kind notes or treats for her “fairy godchild.” After the production and the candlelight processional, an elected Santa Claus would go through the dorm delivering presents on behalf of all the godmothers, at which time all the girls would learn who their fairy godmother was.

Part of the festivities too, was community service. Scripps

students would donate to and volunteer with local organizations that gave toys to area kids who otherwise might not get any during the holiday season. “We usually felt pretty good about that,” Sahak said, “giving back to the local community.”

Sahak said that she wasn’t aware of other elaborate holiday parties occurring at the other campuses. Sahak once attended a medieval banquet at the Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna College, and she attributed that event to a Scripps alumna who was the wife of CMC’s then-President rather than to CMC’s own traditions. There are also pictures in the Consortium archives of students from the other campuses decorating Christmas trees and attending holiday dances. But Scripps, to Sahak’s knowledge, was the only college to put on skits every year for the community.

Sahak said the holiday parties started dwindling in the 1970s, for a number of reasons. “Towards the end of the 60s,” she said, “everything changed.” With the civil rights and feminist movements in full force, many students were thinking of bigger things. The Vietnam War also had an impact on the productions. “When students knew fellows who were killed in the war, somehow putting on...what could be seen as a frivolous Christmas party or holiday party was just not important compared to some of the serious things that were going on in life.”

“They were really wonderful to have, but when students got very involved in civil rights and social justice, putting on a performance sort of honoring or memorializing the middle ages just didn’t seem to be very important,” Sahak said.

Another, perhaps more mundane, factor contributing to the end of holiday parties was a shift in the school’s academic calendar. Students used to have a two week-long break in December, then come back after New Years and have a few weeks before the semester was over. “It was terrible!” Sahak said. “You’d come back and of course you hadn’t studied [for finals] and done all your papers over vacation!” In the 1970s, however, the calendar changed to the one used currently, in which the semester ends before winter break.

“What was really the most important part of [the holiday parties],” Sahak said, “was feeling as if you were doing it for the guests. We were producing this really fun time for the community. ...It really brought the dorms together.”

But Sahak also noted, “Traditions can be outgrown, just like a pair of shoes. I think it would be wonderful to have some sort of dorm-centered activity that everyone in the whole community could participate in, but I don’t think that’s going to come back any time soon.”