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Defining Rituals, Defining Ourselves

         Debora Spar   In our part of the world, December is a time for ritual and celebration; for Christmas trees and Hanukkah lights, eggnog, carols, and an avalanche of holiday cards. In my house it is also, and primarily, a time of cookies—of Toll House cookies with walnuts for my husband and without them for my older son, of a chocolate-chip loaf for my mother and fat sugar cookies for my younger son, and of Russian teacakes for my daughter, who likes the fact that they come from where she does. Every year, my family chides me for getting so worked up about the baking. “It’s okay,” my mother pledges cheerfully on the phone, “you don’t really need to make so many cookies.” “It’s okay,” my husband promises, as he sees me starting to panic, “we can buy the cookies instead.” But then the lobbying begins, quiet and insistent. Don’t skimp on the Toll House, younger son urges, because last year there weren’t enough. Don’t forget the teacakes, my daughter says, because we have to have something from Russia.

            Under normal circumstances, I am not a particularly good cook. But give me a Christmas deadline and three pounds of butter, and I can start rolling the little suckers out like Tater Tots: oatmeal over there; chocolate chip in the middle; sprinkled reindeer on top. My family will “ooh,” they will “aah.” They will pretend to reach for a Clementine but sneak a teacake instead, betrayed by the powdered sugar leaking from their lips. And then they will proclaim, sweetly and predictably, that this year’s cookies are the best. It may not be religion, but it’s certainly a ritual, and a powerful one at that. It’s December, it’s cookies, it’s love.

            Lately, I’ve been thinking about ritual a lot. At Barnard, before we all depart for the holidays each year, we crowd for an evening into LeFrak Gymnasium, where several thousand young women down exorbitant quantities of doughnuts, bacon, pancakes, and waffles. This year the theme was disco and so, as “Waterloo” blared and those of a certain age tried to repress the urge to boogie, students in pajamas and neon glo-bracelets juggled their French toast sticks and danced with abandon. There were Muslim students with hijabs and hot-fudge sundaes, Orthodox Jews with kosher pancakes and Columbia boyfriends, vegetarians with soy bacon. On the night before finals, everyone jumps to “I Will Survive.” It’s December, it’s Midnight Breakfast, it’s Barnard.

            In previous eras, Barnard’s most treasured tradition was probably the Greek Games, a yearly ritual that unfolded between 1903 and 1967. Even now, when I meet an alumna from that time, she invariably reflects upon the Games, asking me what I know of them, and telling me of her own travails or triumphs. I’ve met women in their 80s who still delight at the memory of having pulled the winning chariot; women in their 70s who woefully recall losing competitions to upstarts. When I look at photos from the Games, I am struck by how engaged the students look, how fully immersed they are in the performances, the competitions, the tableaux. Even 40 years later, the power of ritual jumps off the page—as alive, as potent, as our students dancing in the gym today.

            Sometimes I worry that today’s students may not have enough ritual in their lives. Born into a Web-wired, multi-tasked world, they aren’t programmed for elaborate, time-consuming tradition. With so many communities available to them they are hard-pressed to cram any more activities into their jam-packed lives. These centrifugal forces are clearly part of Barnard’s appeal. Our students love being in the city and of the city. Yet I can’t help but wonder if they’re missing part of what used to be the rites of campus; the rituals, like the Greek Games, that drew everyone into a shared experience and created bonds that far outlived the festivities.

            As we prepare to move into the glorious new Diana Center, I hope we can take time to think about what community means at Barnard, and what traditions we have, or might envision, that embody the indomitable sense of who Barnard women are and what they will become. I hope you will join in these conversations and I welcome any thoughts you might have.

In the meantime, best wishes for a New Year filled with cookies, and dancing, and whatever rituals you cherish most.

-Photograph by Steve DeCanio