Eight Oxford traditions, from the centuries old to the surprisingly new
Or: ‘What are We Doing with this Willow Stick?’, A Brief History
St Giles Fair
Medieval trade fair to dodgems and candy floss
Dating back to medieval times, when the event began as part of the commemoration of the consecration of St Giles Church, St Giles Fair has grown into an annual event held on the first Monday and Tuesday following St Giles Day (1 September).
As the fair continued to grow — Queen Elizabeth I is said to have visited in 1567 — the focus changed from market stalls to ‘amusements’ in the late 19th Century.
This (very Victorian) account from the Oxford Chronicle on 24 September 1889, describes the ‘novelty’ of a flying trapeze:
‘The public were invited to… throw themselves from the platform, and then experience the peculiar sensation of flying though the air. At the end of the wire was a padded board to prevent injury to the aerialists, and a net underneath in case of a fall. This was well patronized, not by men and boys only, but on Monday by numerous females, who ascended the platform and made the flight quite regardless of the audible comments of the onlookers at their temerity.’
Whilst royal visits are somewhat rarer these days, the fair continues as ‘one of the greatest and most prestigious in the country.’
The backbones of Oxford’s colleges
At the gates of every college sits the Porters’ Lodge. The role of porters varies slightly from college to college but they are often responsible for the security of the grounds, supporting the college’s students, welcoming visitors and generally taking great care of the hub of college life.
University College describe the porters as ‘effortlessly combining the roles of custodian, oracle and all-seeing eye.’
Beating of the Bounds
Marking of the parish boundaries
Taking place every year on Ascension Day (a Christian holiday celebrating Jesus’ ascension to heaven) a procession of clergy and parishioners mark the borders of their parish by walking them and hitting marker stones with willow sticks.
With the tradition dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, much of the city has changed substantially since the tradition started.
Whilst some boundary stones are still quite easy to reach — for example the grounds of Brasenose College — others have become engulfed by 21st century Oxford. As a result, the procession now visits some less traditional locations, including the staff storeroom in TK Maxx, the ladieswear section of Marks & Spencer, and the rear entrance to Boots.
Summer arrives in Oxford
For centuries people throughout the country have celebrated May Day, and Oxford is no different, where festivities start at 6am when the Choir of Magdalen College climb the college tower and sing from the top.
The exact date this tradition began is unknown but historian Roy Judge, once president of the Folklore Society, found it to be first referenced in the 17th century when £10 was paid by the college’s rector to ‘keep up an ancient custom of May Day of vocal and instrumental music on top of the tower.’
Today over 25,000 people gather round Magdalen Tower every 1 May to hear the choir sing Hymnus Eucharisticus — many of whom will have stayed up all night for May Eve celebrations— before heading into the city centre for dancing and music.
One of Oxford’s oldest traditions, dating from around 1636
From the Latin sub fuscus, Oxford’s traditional academic clothing consists of dark suits or skirts with white shirts, a cap or mortarboard, a white bow tie or black tie or black ribbon worn under a gown.
Sub fusc academic dress is worn to all formal University ceremonies, including exams (when it is often accessorised with carnations), degree ceremonies and matriculation — the ceremony at the start of every year when students officially become members of the University.
Saving the universe at Merton College
To celebrate this unique and college-specific tradition, students at Merton College head down to the Fellows Quad on the last Sunday in October dressed in full sub fusc to selflessly preserve the state of the universe.
Started in 1971 by student Barry Press, the first ceremony marked the end of a year-long trail in which the UK remained on BST.
‘We thought that in theory maybe it wouldn’t go back, and that we ought to help it. And this seemed the obvious thing to do,’ said Press in a recent interview.
Starting at 2am British Summer Time, Mertonians walk backwards around the Quad for an hour until 2am Greenwich Mean Time, ensuring the clocks successfully change (‘Which they always do’, Press notes. ‘I mean, you can’t dispute that.’)
And we haven’t experienced any issues with the time-space continuum since.
Celebrating the Head of the River
Taking place on the Isis (Oxford’s portion of the River Thames) every May is Summer Eights, the four-day intercollegiate rowing regatta where teams compete to become Head of the River by ‘bumping’ other teams boats.
Currently leading the table are Christ Church College with 33 wins since Summer Eights began in 1815.
Winning teams traditionally celebrate with a formal dinner at their college after which, following a short speech by the head of the college, a sacrificial disused boat is brought out and set alight in the college’s quad.
Tokens of luck and support
If you’ve seen exam-going students wearing sub fusc, you may have noticed that many are wearing a carnation in the lapel.
Carnations are given and worn for luck and support during exams — worn in progressively intense colours as students progress. A white carnation is worn for their first exam, then pink for the rest until their final exam, where a red carnation is worn.
Read more about one of Oxford’s newest — and romantic — traditions right here on Medium:
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