My father recalls two different ceremonies he learned in the Navy while away at sea. The two ceremonies are performed when a sailor first crosses the equator and/or the international date line. He remembers, When I was finally on a Navy ship, they had different ceremonies, one for crossing the equator, from the northern hemisphere to southern hemisphere, and the other is for crossing the international date line, which is in the middle of the Pacific ocean, goes vertical. They were called initiation ceremonies. I think it was called the Shellback initiation ceremony, or Order of the Shellback. I was 27 for Shellback and 33 for the other. This is something that used to get wild in the old days, they used to paddle guys butts and make them carry apples in their mouths and stupid stuff like that, kind of akin to entering a fraternity. The guys who had already done it get to administer to the guys who havent done it. Now, they probably just lecture them or something, or make them read a poem or something not physical [laughs]. I think I had to drink a bowl of melted butter.
I researched these ceremonies, and found a website which describes the Shellback Initiation ceremony as much more humiliating than what my father told me. I wonder if perhaps he censored his story for my sake, even though I asked for the brutal truth, or if things have just changed as time goes on to become less brutal (both are likely accurate). The website also mentioned a card, or certificate one would receive after going through the initiation, to carry on him at all times, lest he lose it and have to go through the ceremony again for a new card. The Golden Shellback is the name for the ceremony performed when one has crossed the international date line.
When I asked my father what he thought about the initiations, he said, It was all pretty silly, and its probably not that way anymore, but thats how it was when I was there. Either way, with or without the humiliating activities, the ceremony goes on, honoring the men at sea who have crossed a liminal line.
My father, Brian, recalls an initiation ceremony he learned from the upperclassmen at Annapolis Naval Academy. He was 18 attending school in Annapolis, Maryland, when he experienced this activity forced on Freshman finishing their first year.
Brian recalls, At the end of freshman year, and the beginning of the grad week ceremonies, the senior class would well, the Herndon Monument is like a small version of the Washington monument. And the senior class covers it in grease and then they put a small sailors cap at the top of the monument. And the freshman class has to get the cap off the top of the monument. They have to build sort of a human pyramid, they have to get five or six levels high. They have to use teamwork to get the hat down. It usually takes a couple of hours. I think the fastest its been done is an hour and five minutes, and once they get the hat down, thats the end of being a Phebe, a freshman, who has to do a lot of extra work, be uncomfortable, being harassed, its like the end of their hard times. The fact that this ceremony is performed at the end of the freshmans first year is significant, they should have learned how to work as a team by then, and getting the cap should be easy. This freshman ceremony seems to be more about hoping they achieve their goal than humiliating them for sport, which perhaps is why it seems to be a less resented ceremony (the fact that it signifies the end of freshman duties must also be a sweet victory).
When I asked my dad what he thought about the ceremony, he said, Its a really fond memory, it adds a sense of finality to a long arduous journey. I cant imagine interpreting it any differently, the relief of knowing your worst year is over must be sweet.
Jonathan recalls a boarding school initiation ceremony that he learned from the upperclassmen while an underclassman, about 15 years old, at Lawrenceville Preparatory in Princeton, NJ. This ceremony took place at the beginning of the year, when everyone was placed in their houses.
Jonathan remembers, In boarding school, for initiation into one of the dorm houses – there was a bunch of them, mine was Woodhull – all I can remember is that the younger kids would get a five-star on the back. Like an open handed slap on the back, done hard enough to make an imprint. It was about humiliation, making camaraderie among people because youre all suffering through the same thing. The ability to suffer with your companions, knowing one day youll be on the other side of the ceremony, in my opinion, is likely the only reason the tradition remains to this day.
When I asked him what he thought of the initiation ceremony, however, he said, Its a silly old tradition that kind of alienates people, because it wasnt mandatory. You didnt have to do it. Then the people who didnt want to be a part of it were out of the camaraderie of the house. This tradition was most likely brought to fruition for the first time when hazing wasnt such a taboo hot topic and young schoolboys could be pressured into participating from the inside. However, nowadays, hazing is hardly tolerated. The traditions still exist, as does the peer pressure, even if they now have the imagined option to opt out without consequence.
Ellen recalls a family holiday tradition that she learned from her grandmother. This tradition is one that has been in her family for generations, but her earliest memory of this tradition is around age four, while growing up in Lafayette, CA.
She says, My grandmother would always make clam chowder on Christmas Eve because her family was originally from Wisconsin. They were British Americans. And the clam chowder was both a reflection of the region and the clams that could be found off the east coast of the United States, and also you had it o Christmas Eve because it was a modest meal, and Christmas Eve was supposed to be a night of piety and some restraint. It was a precursor to the Christmas roast and extravagant meal for that day. My mother continues the tradition today by always making clam chowder on Christmas Eve. When I asked her what she thought about this tradition, she said quite surely, I will do it with my children.
Familial holidays like Christmas tend to bring the family together from all parts of the world, and traditions during these holidays help to maintain a sense of familial identity. I believe the Fehr Clam Chowder tradition serves to help maintain a sense of identity as well as a sense of morality year to year.
Harley recalls a folklore initiation performance that happened every year at his high school, Suffield Academy. He learned it from the upperclassmen when he was an underclassman, and it happens after the first significant snowfall of the winter. He says, It was called First Snow. Every year, when there was a first snow, big enough for a snow fight, wed try to fucking demolish the younger kids. Wed literally pile-drive them into the ice. We were mean. Thank god Sophomore year we were in a small dorm of 8 people, and most of us had brothers that were older than us, so we got to fight our friends pretty much. There was never any disrespect about any of it, it was just what had to happen. You knew it so youd just go out and take it. It was just hazing to the max, we just did it because we knew when we were old enough we could do it, too. This seems to be a pretty classic east-coast school tradition, the snowball fight, as is the senior/freshman hierarchy.
Harley says, I think it helped form who I am. Because my high school formed me into who I am, this is one of those traditions that is like a major memory of high school. I wouldnt say it changed me, it was just the whole experience [that did]. I totally agree. I think the likelihood of the actual snowball fight having anything to do with how he was shaped as a person is slim. However, the idea behind the tradition, that you have to take some punches and earn your way towards being an authority figure, is a good life lesson thats completely applicable in the real world.
Annotated: First snowfall ceremonies can be seen as documented in WorldsStrangest.com, in an article about the 10 Strangest College Traditions.
“The Quick 10 – 10 Strange College Traditions.” worldsstrangest.com. N.p., 29/OCT/2010. Web. 27 Apr 2011. <http://www.worldsstrangest.com/mental-floss/the-quick-10-10-strange-college-traditions/>.