Columbia University traditions

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Columbia University has developed many traditions over its 258-year-long existence, most of them associated with its oldest undergraduate division, Columbia College.

First Year March[edit]

During orientation week before their first classes, first years exit Lerner Hall through its back doors, turn right and enter campus again through the main gates to officially become Columbia students.[1]

The Varsity Show[edit]

An annual musical written by and for students, this is one of Columbia's oldest and finest traditions. Past writers and directors have included Columbians Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart, I.A.L. Diamond, and Herman Wouk. The show has one of the largest operating budgets of all university events.[2]

Orgo Night[edit]

On the day before the Organic Chemistry exam—which is often on the first day of finals—at precisely the stroke of midnight, the Columbia University Marching Band occupies Butler Library to distract diligent students from studying in an attempt to raise the curve on the organic chemistry exam. After a forty-five minutes or so of jokes and music, the procession then moves out to the lawn in front of Hartley, Wallach and John Jay residence halls to entertain the residents there. The Band then plays at various other locations around Morningside Heights, including the residential quadrangle of Barnard College, where students of the all-women's school, in mock-consternation, rain trash - including notes and course packets - and water balloons upon them from their dormitories above. The Band tends to close their Orgo Night performances before Furnald Hall, known among students as the more studious and reportedly "anti-social" residence hall, where the underclassmen in the Band serenade the graduating seniors with an entertaining, though vulgar, mock-hymn to Columbia, composed of quips that poke fun at the various stereotypes about the Columbia student body.

Alma mater[edit]

Legend has it that the first freshman to find the owl tucked within the folds of the Daniel Chester French sculpture of Alma Mater that sits on the steps of Low Memorial Library will graduate as valedictorian.

Primal Scream[edit]

On the Sunday of finals week each semester, students open their windows at midnight and scream as loudly as possible. The tradition helps students release their pent up stress and anxiety about exams. Similar traditions exist at UC Santa Cruz, Stanford University, Harvard University, Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, Vassar College and presumably other institutes of higher learning as well.[3]

40s on 40[edit]

With forty days remaining until graduation, seniors drink 40oz malt liquor on the steps of Low Library to celebrate their impending graduation. Regarded as a rite of passage, the event usually leaves debris on the steps and gives passing tour groups a unique impression of the school as evidenced here. In 2007, the administration attempted to make the tradition a carefully regulated event, perhaps due to incidents and complaints from previous years.

Although it has been suggested that the administration chose to target a particularly festive student tradition, one might argue that regulations on 40s on 40 are in keeping with the university's increasingly stringent anti-alcohol policy. 2005, which saw a traditional 40s on 40, already ushered in the first year of mandatory online alcohol safety class for incoming freshmen (

Whatever the cause, by 2008 the tradition appears to have changed entirely. At 12:00 pm only those seniors whose names were on a list (in prior years many underclassmen had joined, when possible, in wishing the seniors farewell) were allowed into a cordoned section of the steps. Students were given wristbands which were market to limit intake of light beer to one 12oz cup per hour in keeping with the oft-bemoaned regulations on alcohol events. The university catering service provided bud lite and sandwiches (vegetarian option included).

At 12:05 hundreds of students were observed waiting in lines to purchase tee shirts commemorating the event.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Annual Bad Poetry Contest[edit]

Beginning in 1986, the Philolexian Society has hosted this open-to-the-public event in honor of Alfred Joyce Kilmer (Class of 1908), vice president of the society and the author of "Trees." Contestants read their wittiest and worst original poetry, hoping for cheers and the title of Poet Laureate.[4][5] The event, which regularly draws 200 people or more, generally takes place a week before Thanksgiving.

Two students have won the competition twice: Everett Patterson, Columbia College '06 in 2003 and 2005, and Stephen Blair, Columbia College '11, in 2008 and 2012.

Tree-Lighting and Yule Log Ceremonies[edit]

College Walk is illuminated in the winter months

The campus Tree-Lighting Ceremony is a relatively new tradition at Columbia, inaugurated in 1998. It celebrates the illumination of the medium-sized trees lining College Walk in front of Kent and Hamilton Halls on the east end and Dodge and Journalism Halls on the west, just before finals week in early December. The lights remain on until February 28. Students meet at the sun-dial for free hot chocolate, performances by various a cappella groups, and speeches by the university president and a guest.

Immediately following the College Walk festivities is one of Columbia's older holiday traditions, the lighting of the Yule Log. The ceremony dates to a period prior to the American Revolutionary War, but lapsed before being revived by University President Nicholas Murray Butler in the early 20th century. A troop of students dressed in Continental Army soldiers carry the eponymous log from the sun-dial to the lounge of John Jay Hall, where it is lit amid the singing of seasonal carols.[6] The ceremony includes readings of A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore (Columbia College class of 1798) and Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus by Francis Pharcellus Church (Class of 1859).


  1. ^ "The Class of '10". Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2006-08-28.
  2. ^ "The Varsity Show, April 15–18". Columbia University. January 10, 2005. Retrieved 2006-12-03.
  3. ^ Johnson, Soterios (May 11, 2005). "Spring Scream at Columbia" (RealAudio, Windows Media Player). All Things Considered. National Public Radio. Retrieved 2006-08-10.
  4. ^ Newhouse News Service:If I'm as Bad as I Can Be, Won't You Please Not Publish Me? Archived December 20, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Swindler, Josie (October 27, 2005). "Debate Club's Debauchery Continues in 21st Century". Columbia Spectator. Retrieved 2006-12-04. [dead link]
  6. ^ Hollander, Jason (December 3, 1999). "Holiday Season Ushered In With Tree-Lighting Ceremony". Columbia News. Retrieved 2006-08-10.