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Holidays Invade the Houses

The Mystery and Mayhem of Tradition

By Tova A. Serkin and Daniel A. Zweifach, CONTRIBUTING WRITERSs

With the temperature finally dropping down to December norms, holiday festivities are underway in the Houses. Some have age-old traditions that residents look forward to every year, while others go through the more typical motions of decorating the buildings and caroling. Although some have lost their religious character, the result may be a more inclusive atmosphere.

"Kirkland House is incredibly spirited over the holidays," says resident Elizabeth "Tizzy" C. Cornish '99.

All of the Houses have at least one celebratory gathering. Concerts, Christmas tree decoratings and secret gift exchanges are also commonplace around campus.

Some individual rooms and common areas are already decked with holiday cheer. Many decorations are the products of House efforts while others are the work of especially merry students.

"I think people are excited," says Quincy House resident Jessie M. Amberg '00, a Crimson editor. "It's nice to see wreaths around the banister."

But Matthew F. Delmont '00 of Lowell House says besides a tree and a menorah in the dining hall, "I don't see much. I think everyone is so focused on finishing work before the holidays.

"Everyone can't wait to go home," he adds.

While Chemistry midterms and last minute papers may detract from the holiday spirit, many Houses try to combat academically fueled apathy with unique seasonal traditions--traditions that have remained, albeit with some changes, slightly adjusted in the face of randomization.

"Randomization has (for better or for worse) altered the character of the Houses, and House traditions have changed to reflect the new character," Benjamin A. Lanson '00 says in a recent e-mail. "Nevertheless, the traditions remain an important part of House life."

According to Adams House co-Master Robert J. Kiely, "The oldest (going back at to at least 1963) Adams tradition at this season is a formal concert reading of a chapter from the Winnie the Pooh in which tutors, associates and even the Master take part."

Readings of classic children's books are a popular tradition: following a holiday dinner on Sunday, Cabot House students will read out loud from Dr. Suess's "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas"--and House tutors will act the story out.

Lowell House residents also look forward to something special at their annual dinner. The Yule log burning, an event earlier this week during which Masters Diana L. Eck and Dorothy A. Austin attempted to light the festive log on fire with only one match, drew over 300 students according to one resident's estimate.

"You seldom see almost the entire House in the dining hall," Delmont says. "It was almost completely filled."

Some common traditions have special significance. Secret Santa takes on additional importance in Kirkland House. It is the only time during the year that the Kirkland dining hall is closed to inter-house dining.

"The reinforcement of community spirit brought about by the number of students participating in Kirkland's holiday celebration is undeniable," says Lanson, who is the Kirkland House committee chair. "Secret Santa and this weekend's Holiday Dinner and Dance are the talk of the House."

Yet Lanson did not mention, and Sarah A. Tucker '00, social chair on the Kirkland House committee refused to comment concerning what students say is the most famous tradition of all: Incestfest.

According to resident Marisa L. Porges '00, "it is the culmination of Secret Santa week and provides an opportunity for a formal where only House members are allowed."

"It becomes a closer event," Porges says. "I think at one time pre-randomization, it might have lived up to its name more accurately, but now it provides a closer knit environment"

Yet not every House has such long-standing holiday traditions.

"We have nothing like those crazy cats in Kirkland," says Kimble Poon '99 of Mather House. "Maybe we'll organize a polar bear expedition to jump in the Charles. With all of this work, someone just might be crazy enough."

Eliot House is perhaps trying to start a new tradition with "Holiday Tag," which combines the popular campus game "Assassin" and secret gift exchanges. According to Eliot House Committee, more than 80 residents are participating.

Even holiday traditions change with the times and most current celebrations try to recognize the diversity of beliefs and traditions. While many events this year remain Christmas-oriented, the focus is shifting.

Kiely points to the "greater and greater inclusion of different traditions in what we call the Adams House Christmas-Hanukkah-WinterFeast."

Kiely says the Adams dinner included singing by the smaller Kuumba chorus ensemble, Brothers, a dance performance by an Indian student, a telling of the story of Hanukkah and a "secular marking of winter."

Brothers will also sing at holiday celebrations in Cabot House which Co-Master James Ware says are part of an effort to welcome the House as a whole.

"We strive to celebrate the holiday traditions in a way that emphasizes shared values of community and family rather than a particular religious perspective," Ware says.

But welcoming more students has necessitated a secularization of some traditions.

"The holiday traditions in Kirkland have lost some of their religious purpose, a change made a virtual certainty given the diverse character of Harvard's modern student body," Lanson says.

One of the changes that Jeannie A. Lang '00 of Lowell House has noticed since last year is directly related to the new Masters of Lowell. Before this year's holiday dinner, Eck, who is a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies, spoke about candle-lighting ceremonies in the different religions that celebrate winter holidays. According to Lang, last year there was not much mention of other religions

"She [Eck] has brought so much culture," Lang said. "It's great."

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