May 2016

By Mawrters, for Mawrters, since 1885


In my mind, Lantern Night glows with warm feelings of sisterhood—but according to my journal from freshman year, Bryn Mawr’s most beautiful and revered tradition actually freaked me out. A Mawrter for only a few months, I’d been exposed as apathetic during an ardent debate about 1984’s class song, and singing Greek phonetically (and badly) by lantern-light only illuminated my feelings of inferiority. The solemn ceremony designed to welcome me into the community of scholars instead seemed to confirm that, even disguised in a dignified bat robe, I wasn’t worthy of the lantern the sophomore class bestowed.

Neither my adolescent anxiety nor my adult change in attitude would have surprised Virginia Wolf Briscoe, a University of Pennsylvania folklorist who applied a sociolinguistic paradigm to understand Bryn Mawr’s traditions as a “communication strategy.” In her 1981 dissertation, Bryn Mawr College Traditions: Women’s Rituals as Expressive Behavior, she observes, “Whether we discuss bonding in communities, shared ‘sentiment’ or simply ‘identification,’ we are speaking of ways in which groups of people communicate expressively their sense of interrelatedness and their sense of their difference from others.” Reasoning by analogy with language, she assumes our traditions have to be learned and that performing them is part of learning “how to be Bryn Mawrters.”

For me, that process took four years and then some: nearly 25 years of work at Bryn Mawr recruiting students and teaching in the creative writing program. Traditions served as touchstones in my transition from student to alumna to employee and helped me to convey the value of our alma mater to prospective students. When I chose a photo of antique lanterns for the cover of the viewbook I produced, I knew that symbol’s power to speak to the purpose of a Bryn Mawr education and to invoke the women who light the path and lead the way. Of course, by then I was older—and finally wise enough to understand the significance of a ceremony granting us membership in that community well before we’d earned our degrees.

Queen of the May Agnes Howell '30 in front of the May Pole.

Queen of the May Agnes Howell ’30 in front of the May Pole.

Our college grew into its traditions, too. As basic to Bryn Mawr’s image as its collegiate gothic architecture and lovely landscaped campus, writes Briscoe, “the shape the traditions took, the images chosen as their central focus, the nature and kinds of activities associated with them, were all expressions of pride in the College’s innovative efforts to promote the academic success of women.” Our Quaker founders telegraphed Bryn Mawr’s distinctiveness among women’s colleges by establishing a “group system” of study (parallel subjects taken in logical sequence), a graduate school (employing a more highly trained faculty and situating doctoral students in the dorms as wardens and role models), competitive athletics, and self-governance; in response, Bryn Mawr students expressed their “high goals for scholarship and sororial support” through the traditions they invented.

Reading Briscoe’s three-volume, nearly 1,000-page tome, I was surprised to learn that our time-honored traditions weren’t set in Wissahickon schist. These rituals, she found, “both affirm identity with the college, and reflect the changing reality students create as they pass through the institution.”

To trace our major traditions from 1885 to 1976—from origin through evolution—Briscoe surveyed women entering Bryn Mawr in the fall of 1975 and compared their reports to student and alumnae interviews, direct observation, and archival materials. Surveying old photos, past issues of the College News and its precursors, songbooks, event programs, student scrapbooks, letters home, and admissions brochures, she documents how our traditions persisted and evolved, mirroring—and occasionally revealing tension between—Bryn Mawr’s changing self-image and the image we show to the world. Like the early, over-the-top May Day celebrations conceived by alumna E.W. Andrews (1893) to raise funds through ticket sales and showcase student talent through authentic Elizabethan entertainments, Lantern Night was part rite of passage and part advertisement for the pioneering college.

Briscoe cites the “evangelistic spirit” in M. Carey Thomas’s chapel speeches as evidence of our first dean and second president’s thumbprint on Lantern Night, which she endorsed as “a symbol indicative of the college woman’s responsibility to other women.” Her influence on student-led rituals resulted in the hand-me-down hybrid we know today, first performed in 1897 on Denbigh Green: a fusion of Cap and Gown Night (when freshmen received—and sophomores schemed to steal—the costumes worn to class and chapel) and a lantern-giving custom (typically following “secular” activities such as the sophomore class play and basketball competitions). Lantern Night was in flux until Thomas retired in 1922, repeatedly altered to address both logistical and aesthetic concerns. Traditions Mistresses relocated the ceremony to the Cloisters in 1909, curtailed the parade path and streamlined Step Sing as more students and alumnae participated, and chose “Sophias” (the 1889 class song) as the official freshman lantern song in 1920 after decades of soliciting original compositions. Later enhancements in the 1930s—lantern swingers keeping tempo, strong singers positioned at exits keeping pitch, a simplified lantern design—point to a ceremony perceived as a performance and to performers’ awareness of their audience.

Hoop Rolling, 1954.

Hoop Rolling, 1954.

And it’s no wonder. At the end of the 19th century, Bryn Mawr was an academic experiment—and, as Briscoe observes, its traditions “grew out of a view of the college as a beleaguered institution.” By the mid-1970s, as she deciphered campus culture a decade before the College’s centennial, Briscoe noted a significant shift. Contemporary students seemed to “unite in support of one another through the vehicle of traditions rather than in support of the college as an institution.” In the intervening years, as Bryn Mawr built a reputation for excellence, students bent custom to cultivate sisterhood.

Even Lantern Night—for all its modifications still considered Bryn Mawr’s most traditional tradition—is infused with ingenuity. In 1924, when sophomore “Lantern Girls” were shushed in order to “harmonize with the solemnity of the occasion,” they began tying good-luck cards to the lanterns they delivered instead of speaking their greetings aloud. By 1941, this custom merged with the tea-taking that allowed experienced students to enlighten first-years, this informal orientation formalized by Lantern Night tea invitations. Over the years, “tea” hosts have boosted turnout with personalized invitations and with pun-ny themed parties promising different beverages and humorous activities. Most recently, in 2012, Traditions Mistresses helpfully posted the music and lyrics to “Pallas Athena, Thea” and “Sophias,” on YouTube, prompting one alumna from my era to comment, “I might actually have a prayer of singing this now!”

Looking at traditions through an anthropologist’s lens makes the familiar strange and reveals how behavior communicates belief. Briscoe documents how, at different points in history, our traditions turned on aspects of Bryn Mawr to which students attributed community spirit: the group system, self-government, close friendships. She describes how world events, especially war, periodically put traditions in perspective and reduce their scale or justify their practice in stressful times. She ponders how the women’s movement of the 1970s influenced her subjects’ views at a time when Mawrters, like other college women nationwide, embraced cooperation and rejected “received notions of success as achievement marked by domination.”

In the long view Briscoe offers, traditions seem less sacred and more explicable; not museum relics but artifacts that speak of who we were and are in a particular place at different times. Hell Week, which consolidated and channeled many dorm-based freshman hazing rituals, emerges as the result of a rise in class competition sparked when an 1898 residence changed to mixed-class dorms; the regular cycles of Hell Week protest/reform/transgressions/protest predict changes made by current students to preserve the fun but focus on the floral welcome. Like a language, a ritual must be reproduced to survive—through performance, knowledge, memory, and writing. Briscoe credits invention over inertia as a factor in the persistence of our traditions, suggesting that the success of a Traditions Mistress might be measured in how well she’s able to involve students—like the one I once was—who aren’t well informed about or interested in traditions when they arrive.

My engagement with Bryn Mawr over a quarter century has regularly refreshed my view so that I don’t see the College in terms of then and now, mine and theirs—but rather as a stop-action film sequence connecting all of us, like characters in scenes in a continuing story.

And then, while doing research for this article in Canaday’s Special Collections, I came across a ticket to the 1910 Lantern Night ceremony. Browned with age and bearing the ghost of a rusted thumbtack, the ticket took me back to the night when I received the light blue lantern that now sits on my writing desk. Holding that ticket gave me chills—for reasons I don’t need to explain to Bryn Mawr alumnae, the long line of lantern-bearers extending from the past into the future.

Mahira Tiwana 16: Of Bread and Roses

At Step-Sing, we sing of bread and we sing of roses. We raise our lanterns in a teary-eyed haze, blue, green, and red, and bid each other goodnight.

Bryn Mawr traditions are the soul of our community, and for those of us with little time left on campus, we’re savoring every one.

Of our four well-celebrated traditions, Welcome The Freshmen, or WTF Week (formerly referred to as Hell Week), is my favorite and always will be. No tradition binds the BMC campus together like this one. Bonds formed during the week run deeper than most, and everyone who wishes to feels included in the craziness. WTF made Bryn Mawr a special and happy place for me.

This year, with graduation approaching, it was more emotional than usual. I remember listening to the seniors in Rhoads North read their bedtime stories as a freshman, and this year I read my own in Pembroke East. I took my first step toward saying goodbye to the school, along with so many members of the class of 2016. We bade the freshmen, juniors, and sophomores goodnight, knowing that while we will be leaving in a few months, they will carry on this tradition, and those that come after them will do the same. It might be reinvented, reconstructed, changed to fit a community that is as diverse and evolving as ours is. But the essence of the gesture that is this mad, mad week will remain. In the words of the Mad Hatter, we are all mad here, and I’m hoping generations that come after us will revel in their madness the same way we did for four amazing years.

Some Not-So-Traditional Traditions

At Bryn Mawr, humor is a corollary to seriousness, and sisterhood finds many forms. Here, Mawrters claim credit for a few traditions practiced earnestly at least once:

  • Bad Cabaret/Bad Poetry Night. Elise Gruber ’88 and Laura Stamp ’88, aka Artists Anonymous, created forums for dubious art, including “Rubber Ducky” sung as a torch song and tongue-in-cheek recitations of faux-feminist poetry.
  • Brecon Prom. In 1994, Bree Horwitz ’96 dreamed up the “Brecon Prom,” a dance and fancy-duds version of a Lantern Night Tea.
  • Flash Dancing. Gina Spinelli ’84 recalls exam week stress relief in Rhodes: “The trigger phrase was ‘Have you got Hot Rocks?’ Everyone would rush to Phebe Liu’s (1984) room to dance like mad to the Rolling Stones for 10 minutes and then hit the books again.”
  • The Denbigh Back Smoker Diaries. Among many DBS traditions, says Alice Gray Marks ’93, “The Denbigh common room contains the current volume of the Public Diary. A pretty tight crew regularly communicated, often several times a day, through the diary, in long hand and pictures, using noms de plume.”
  • Mailbox Stickers. Stephanie Debner ’95 stuck the first sticker to Charlotte Hand Greeson’s (1993) mailbox (C-1023), starting a decorative trend.
  • May Hole Dance. Veena Siddharth ’84 introduced this intersectional feminist rite, chroreographed for May Day 1984. Dressed in red and purple or non-Western clothing, dancers formed a circle and broke toilet paper “bonds of patriarchy” to the beat of African drums. In 1985, students took up the new tradition, tossing confetti from a circular skirt handed down as a May Day gift. Deborah Sue Rowan ’90 switched the skirt for a parachute she dyed lavender with dark purple edges and replaced the confetti with biodegradable flower petals.
  • Offerings to Athena. In 1990, the New York Times reported on the “polyglot spirituality” practiced before final exams, with treasured items laid beneath the statue of Athena in Thomas Great Hall.
  • Senior Row Streaking: According to Farar Elliott ’87, Jenny-Sayre Ramberg ’87, Elizabeth Schmidt ’87, and Polly Stephens ’87, sprinted naked from the Cloisters to the Moon Bench after the written work deadline in May 1987. Melissa Orner ’87 and Jenny Ho ’87, following with their clothing, veered off to the senior reception—stranding their friends and delivering their clothes to the deans. “With great ingenuity,” says Farrar, “the streakers broke off large branches of azaleas in full bloom, held them in front of their bodies, and walked in stately fashion to the Campus Center, where the deans gravely handed them their clothes.” Jenny-Sayre recalls, “Dean Tidmarsh said, ‘You may not want to do this out in the world.’” Polly adds, “Karen Tidmarsh was at my wedding and said that we started the worst tradition at Bryn Mawr, as hundreds of naked women now barrel across campus!”   
  • Splitting the Poles. Devon Montgomery Pashanamaei (Monty-Pasha) ’06 claims class credit for one superstition: bad luck for friends who walk on separate sides of the bollards on the campus side of Pem Arch.
  • Traying. When dining halls went “trayless” in 2013, so ended the tradition of sledding down Rhoads Hill—and with it, the pun-ny phrases (“Morgan le Tray,” “Manta Tray,” etc.) students scratched into those makeshift “sleds.”