Author Archives: Isabel Seely

Oxford Traditions

Kevin: So, there is also a lot of customs concerning dress at Oxford. For instance, we are required to wear black tuxedos with a white formal shirt and white bowtie when taking our final examinations. No one really knows why this came to be or why it is still practiced, although it clearly relates to the more formal and conservative era in which the university was first established. It also applies to woman, although they can wear black skirts and sweats with a white blouse. Ummm…apparently before I got here the college proctors would always wear their cap and gowns. They do still wear them when proctoring examinations. Again, I think it coincides with the university’s value of tradition and history. I guess I’d say by continuing to practice all these little customs, it is a sign of respect to the university and what it stands for.

Kevin thoughtfully highlighted the university’s impulse to continue to honor its past by preserving the university’s customs, even through the minor folkloric exhibitions of dress. A New York Times article from 1996, similarly draws upon Oxford’s cemented practice of traditions. The author, Penelope Lively, reflects upon the folklore that formed a significant part of her alma mater’s culture. She revisited Oxford after some time and found that not much had changed. The examination dress custom still remained, students still used the same onamastics when referencing the campus’ structures, and the student’s spirit and respect for the perpetuation of the traditions continued to invigorate the Oxford culture.[1] Thus, both in this article and in Kevin’s more recent account of the smaller customs at the university, the significance of Oxford’s folklore practices is clearly an extensive attribute to the university’s identity. Not only is the university united by the common participation in these traditions and likewise, connected to it’s history through such participation, the continuation of these customs demonstrates a sense of respect for the education Oxford is providing.

[1] GOING BACK: OXFORD BY PENELOPE LIVELY New York Times (1923-Current file); Sep 15, 1996; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007) pg. SMA17

Oxford University Festival Tradition

Kevin: Both Being a graduate student at Oxford University and living in London have been great experiences in exposing me to the rich traditional culture of the UK. One celebratory ceremony that immediately comes to mind is Oxford’s May Morning at Magdalen Tower. Although it takes place in Oxford, on Magdalen College grounds, it is not a festival exclusive to the college, nor the university. What basically happens is, students and visitors (I think lots of people come for the festival itself) gather in silence – I believe. Anyway, they gather at the Magdalen Tower in the early hours of the morning, before sunrise. The bell rings several times and then a choir sings the traditional May Morning ceremonial song. I used to know it all actually. It goes something like ‘To thee O God the father, thee, all worship, praise and glory be!’ I forgot it mostly… shoot. Anyway the tower bells ring after the song and then, basically, the streets of Oxford turn into one big party. Nowadays people wear crazy costumes, and there are even concerts organized around the tradition. I’m not sure if the costumes have always been apart of the celebration or not. But anyway, it’s become an excuse to throw a great big party outside and celebrate spring and all. I don’t even go to the ceremony part actually, we just participate once the celebration ensues (LAUGH)!

May Morning at Oxford is a primary example of the folkloric tradition of festivals. Further research of the celebration reveals the celebration’s deeply rooted practice at the university. Tracing back older accounts of the day highlight how the celebration has transformed within contemporary times, yet also shows how the main tradition and meaning of the celebration has maintained throughout its practice. Similarly to what Kevin explained, descriptions of May Morning have always outlined the day starting before sunrise, at the Magdalen Tower, with the sound of bells. This ritual is followed by a performance from the Magdalen College choir, after which the bells ring again, and the party festivities ensue.[1] The hymn Kevin tried attempted to sing, Te Deum patrem colimus (apparently often confused with, Hymmu Eucharisticus – another hymn by the same author at the college) was eventually integrated into the ceremony, although the specific period in which it became the primary song within the ceremony is unknown.[2]

Academic investigations of the Magdalen celebration attempt to uncover the event’s origin and purpose. However, not unlike most folklore, a specific date of origin cannot be pinpointed. Similarly, analyses of the initial purpose for the ceremony differ between sources. A New York Times clipping from 1935 mentions two possible reasons behind the emergence of this traditional- both from drastically different time periods. The newspaper first presents it as a tribute to King Henry VII’s generosity and connection to the Magdalen College. However, the article later associate’s May Morning with the longstanding Roman tradition of celebrating the onset of spring.[3] Additionally, a more contemporary investigation of this particular folk tradition considers both these possibilities as well as the initiation of this festival as an attempt to host a secular celebration during a religiously controversial time.[4]

Justifications for the festivals purpose are not the only aspects of the practice that vary. Many different forms of folklore help to construct the event. The day includes traditional ceremonial rituals, folk music specific to this festival, folk beliefs concerned with the meaning behind the festival, and the day now even encompasses the tradition for Oxford students to dress in whimsical costumes. Similarly, there are many cultural expressions that reference May Morning, such as Holman Hunters 1891 painting entitled, May Morning and the Magdalen Tower.[5] Consequently, the festival is a vibrant part of the Oxford culture. It is a highly respected and celebrated form of expression and celebration, indicated by the extensive literature, both academic and personal, generated about the topic. May Morning unifies the Oxford community as it celebrates the pristine nature that surrounds the university because the whole festival is conducted outdoors.



By DIANA LIVINGSTON. New York Times (1923-Current file); Apr 28, 1935; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007) pg. X20


May Morning and Magdalen College, Oxford Author(s): Roy Judge Source: Folklore, Vol. 97, No. 1 (1986), pp. 15-40. URL: . pp. 17

[3] Livingston

[4] Judge, pp. 25

[5] ibid. pp. 26

Southern Recipe

Marsha: When I was growing up, one of the ladies that used to work for us would make these things called Sugar Tits, which is basically you put a piece of butter in a cheese cloth and you twist it around, and you dip the cheese cloth and butter into sugar. And they would give it to us as little kids to suck on. It’s like a little pacifier.

Although the context in which I interviewed Marsha was not ideal for collecting information because she was in a big rush, this piece of folklore is significantly included within the collection. When I initially asked Marsha to think about a piece of folklore to share with me, knowing that she would probably draw on her southern roots, she mentioned this without hesitation. Marsha’s description of Sugar Tits not only proves the diversity of folklore genres, but it also illustrates the culture of her childhood. Marsha grew up in a wealthy and large southern family. Although I already knew this background on Marsha, during her interview, her reference to “the ladies that used to work for us” suggests these details (i.e. her family had more than one woman helping within the household). Additionally, the simple ingredients used to make this treat, sugar and butter, are very prominent in southern cooking and its name is a candid and comedic connection to how the recipe appears – a soft, squishy sack of sugar.

Given the name, the comparison to a pacifier, the act of sucking on this treat, and the fact that it was given to Marsha and her siblings when they were little kids, resembles the act of breast-feeding. It is then significant that this folklore recipe was introduced to Marsha by “the ladies that worked” for them, rather than by her mother. Knowing Marsha’s upbringing, this story highlights the detachment she had from her parents at an early age. The Sugar Tit symbolizes her nannies’ effort to comfort the children, like a mother comforts a baby by nursing, as a replacement for their mother. Additionally, it is a folk recipe that represents the south through it’s ingredients and practice. Similar modes of comfort, through food especially, appear in many cultures, often pertaining to children. Furthermore, this piece of folklore was the immediate thought that came to Marsha. Observing this as her initial response demonstrates that eating the Sugar Tit was a strong memory for Marsha; it is a form of folklore that helps define her childhood.

Folk Remedy/Belief

Jackie: So my nanny, Marta, from El Salvador, whom we grew up with and whom still works for my parents used to always eat chicken for lunch. I followed Marta wherever she went around the house. So when she would sit and have her lunch, I would always linger around her chair. I specifically remember always asking to try some of her lunch and noting… like I vividly remember calling attention to the fact that her chicken tasted different than the chicken I would eat for dinner or something. And when I asked Marta why, I think I was like 5 or 6 when she told me this… She told me that her chicken tasted different because she only ate chicken a day after it had been cooked. She said it was better for you that way.

Isabel: Did you ever try this?

Jackie: I only tried it when I would ask her for a bite. I liked the ‘different’ taste but the belief or whatever it was never stuck with me. Just something I remember.

Isabel: And she only leftover chicken?

Jackie: Yep, I believe so. It kind of makes sense now that I think about it. Marta is super OCD. I think this was almost out of routine or compulsion than true ‘belief’ you know? I also think it could have reflected some of her Salvadorian heritage. Maybe it’s a known and accepted belief there? I don’t know. I just know that I never questioned her as a little kid but also never felt the need to follow this ‘chicken idea’ I guess. Its just something memorable about Marta for me.

Jackie’s description of her nanny’s belief in the benefits of leftover chicken, show the ritualistic aspects of certain folklore genres. The fact that Marta’s belief was not only about the health benefits of eating the chicken, but was also a form of control through routine for Marta exposes the psychological factors that surround folklore performances. In addition, Jackie’s retelling of this practice is very endearing. Throughout the interview she is very nostalgic and seems comforted by the thought of Marta. Jackie associates the folklore with her childhood alongside Marta allowing her to connect to her past.

Folk Belief

Never swim until 3 hours after you eat.

Sophia, who is a Greek-American like myself, heard this belief from her Greek grandmother. Her grandmother would give this advise after every meal, whether they intended to swim or not. Sophia describes this advise as her “grandmother’s motto”, despite the fact that it rarely pertained to the context in which she would advise. Interestingly, my Greek grandmother repeated the same warning to us after many meals. Although my grandmother would advise this before we went swimming, our two accounts nevertheless provide evidence for the multiplicity of this folklore. The saying is concerned with the concept of eating, a valued aspect of the Greek culture. The saying advises not to swim after eating in order to prevent one from drowning. It is an extreme belief in many aspects. The suggestion that one would drown after a meal implies the consumption of a very large amount of food. Additionally, advising to wait three hours is also very extreme and continues the implication of a large meal. The stress placed on food is evident in the opposition to this folklore; the saying does not advise to ‘eat less so one is not at risk of drowning’.