Winter carnival: More than a mere snow day

On Feb. 27, 1915, a group of 10 Williams College students harnessed their collective thirst for the outdoors to hold the first annual Winter Carnival. Back then, like now, many students probably used the day as an opportunity to catch up on much needed sleep, but the spirit of the day, along with the history with which it is now associated, encapsulates much more than a Friday afternoon siesta ever will.

The second annual Winter Carnival, held in 1916, was organized by the newly established Williams Outing Club (WOC). While today it remains an event that is run by WOC, the day has grown into a themed, all-campus celebration, evolving considerably since its inception 94 years ago.

Winter carnival was originally a celebration of the College’s ski races, which were exciting for their novelty and community spirit because it was still a new sport and brought many ski enthusiasts together.
During the 1950s, the ski races were held on the Thunderbolt trail on Mt. Greylock and were considerably less structured than they are today. There were no gates for the racers to negotiate; instead they shot straight down the mountain and the first to get to the bottom was the winner. Jim Briggs ’60 described one racer who “won it one year by jumping the trees and hitting the trail and going down it – he cut the whole corner off!”

While the ski races remained popular, in later decades fraternities came to play an important role in engendering the day with enthusiasm. Parties with traditional beverages were par for the course, but the real inspiration came from the snow and ice sculptures that sprang up on lawns all over campus. During Winter Carnival, it was normal for there to be 15 such sculptures. Delving into archives yields the predictable discovery that some sculptors of the times were preoccupied with the themes of beer and livestock, but perhaps the most striking were those of the history professor Robert R.R. Brooks. With the help of chicken wire and a ladder, Brooks built gravity-defying likenesses of figure skaters performing acrobatics, which reached more than 10 feet into the air.

This year’s Winter Carnival in particular will have come a long way from that of 1915. First of all, a new agreement among the colleges of participating ski teams changed the schedule so that no school can host a carnival in back-to-back years in order to allow more schools to host carnivals of their own. Josh Cantor ’08, a former president of WOC, acknowledged the change in the Carnival, “Now that the ski races and other activities have taken a back seat [the Outing Club is] making an effort to rekindle excitement on campus.”

Taking the place of the traditional ski team skits at the opening ceremonies will be the “Williams Got Talent” show featuring the College’s own faculty and student musicians. This year’s theme of “Wizards and Blizzards” is a step in that direction, diverging from themes of recent years, which have been almost invariably cow-oriented. In keeping with the theme this Friday, there will be 12 blocks of ice on Paresky porch for wizard-themed sculpting by dining services and interested students, and on Friday night there will be a performance by a hypnotist followed by a concert by the band Harry and the Potters. The evening will close with a Yule Ball, like that in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

While this year’s Winter Carnival will have a new flavor, students can still expect it to remain true to its roots. Scott Lewis, director of WOC, invoked the Williams of yore: “This carnival has long been the tradition of the College and it continues to reflect the attitudes set down by Albert Hopkins in the 1800s, who wanted to cultivate a lure for the beautiful and to secure healthful and pleasurable outdoor exercise.” To this end, weather permitting, there will be a cross-country ski race open to all students right on Paresky lawn, and, for those who are somewhat more daring, the second annual “Weenie-Jam,” a snowboard competition in a terrain Park at Jiminy Peak.

However much the Carnival has changed since its beginning, a few traditions seem to remain: those that embrace the community at the College and those that permit a break for students to enjoy the outdoors. Jay Cox-Chapman ’09, co-president of WOC, summarized the goal of the campus holiday: “The goal of Winter Carnival is to remind everyone that winter can be fun.”