The Spirit of Winter Carnival

The substance of future “then and now exchanges” is waiting to be written. All you need to do is fill-in the pages .

The substance of future “then and now exchanges” is waiting to be written. All you need to do is fill-in the pages .

In the spring of 2011, shortly after I decided to matriculate at Dartmouth, I had the good fortune of accompanying a family friend on a trout-fishing trip. As a member of the Class of 1961 and a proud Dartmouth alumnus, he was delighted when he learned of my choice in schools and spent most of the day relating tales of memorable weekends and favorite traditions during his time as a student in Hanover.

Naturally, the names of Dartmouth greats came up early and often. I recall catching more references to the likes of Herb West, John Sloan Dickey, and Dean Thad than I did Browns and Rainbows that day. All afternoon, he reminisced fondly about seeing President Dickey and his wife dance the Charleston in Heorot’s basement and Herb West bring a room of sophomores to tears during a lecture for his American thought seminar. For him, these moments and men were the stuff of legend. For me, their unfamiliarity was more daunting than it was inspiring. I spent much of the day nodding and smiling agreeably, hoping that if I ever had the opportunity to take a young Dartmouth student fishing, I too would have such enviable stories to share.

To this day, my family friend and I have had stayed in close contact and have maintained what he calls a “then-and-now” exchange. Early installments included a comparison of our commutes to and from campus (he would train-in from Wisconsin in his Sunday best while I would zip up I-91 in jeans and a golf shirt), tuition costs (his Dartmouth education was a little less than $9,000 and mine, well, I’ll have to ask a math major for help figuring that out), and on-campus dining options (Thayer’s old “mystery meat meals” certainly sound less appealing than Foco’s now-famous “Chicken Mondays”). While the substance of each of these installments is always different, the underlying importance of the exchange has remained the same: it is a chance for me to appreciate the character of the alma mater I have inherited and better understand how it has changed in the decades since he was enrolled here.

Unfortunately, it is in this later capacity that our recent emails about Winter Carnival have been the most instructive. Based on the experiences of the last few years, current students might find it hard to believe that this weekend used to be Dartmouth’s signature bash. Throughout much of the last century, Winter Carnival has had a reputation that was well earned and left undergraduates everywhere plotting to attend the next “Mardi Gras of the North.” Ultimately, many of them did. As my friend tells it, “over 2,000-plus students from the Midwest, South, New York, and the schools around Boston arrived [at Carnival] in such numbers that the train station at White River Junction looked like Grand Central. Caravans of buses brought them to Hanover that evening and [all of the available rooms were quickly claimed.] Shortly thereafter, the weekend began.”

And what a weekend it was. In those days, Winter Carnival was the “Final Four” of collegiate skiing and brought the best teams in the nation to partake in the fun. On Friday morning, racers from the likes of Dartmouth, Northeastern, and the University of Colorado would tear down the slopes of the Skiway with all of Hanover there to cheer them on. More often then not, the College would come out on top, besting their national rivals and enhancing the celebratory mood of the rest of the weekend. It was quite a show, so much so that in 1960 Bud Collins, who hosted CBS’s Sports Spectacular program, brought up his crew and filmed it and the subsequent events of the day for a national audience.

The snow sculptures of that period also met the hype and involved the entirety of the campus in their design and construction. Past themes included “Prohibition Blues,” “Northside Story,” and “Winter Wanderlust,” and the apparatuses that Carnival planners envisioned put today’s cupcakes and Red Riding Hoods to shame. Fraternities also got in on the action, competing to build the best sculptures on their lawns and host the biggest and booziest soirees. With all of campus invested in the success of the weekend, Hanover turned into one enormous party, and everyone who came left with fantastically hazy memories of the fun they had here.

Without a doubt, the legacy of these successful weekends should be a source of continued pride for the College and its students. However, as the events of recent years have shown, there is far more to lament than there is to laud about the current state of Carnival weekend. The days of northbound trains filled with students and would-be skiing champions are over. So too are the days of towering ice sculptures, CBS sportscasts, and events like “The Carnival Queen” and the “Keg Jump.” In their place, we get “Polar Bear Plunges” under the watchful eyes of Safety and Security officers, indecipherable mounds of ice that are more the stuff of ridicule than pride, and an unending train of the usual fraternity parties that are replete with random walk-throughs and scenes of recent alums holding table against some hapless Harvard students. When this is the new reality, one cannot help but wonder: where has all of the fun gone?

The answer to this question is more obvious than it might seem. Historically, Winter Carnival has been such a success because the entirety of the community wanted it to be. Details like the construction of the snow sculpture and the organization of keynote activities were embraced as the responsibility of all instead of the prerogative of a few, and students worked to turn the traditions of the weekend into a piece of their own legacies on campus. This collective passion has long been the defining trait of the weekend; for Dartmouth to reclaim the esteem of Carnivals past, its students must decide to invest fully in its success again and remember that they have much to live up to.

Come Thursday night, make it your mission to honor this special inheritance. Search for ways to engage with the events of the weekend. Attend the ski races. Take a plunge in Occom. Go to Beach Party. Enter the “human dog sled race.” Take someone to the Carnival Ball. Have a drink with an alumnus or two… Whatever it is that you decide to do, make sure that you embrace this weekend as the unique thing it is and enjoy it to the fullest. The substance of future “then and now exchanges” is waiting to be written. All you need to do is fill-in the pages.