The Lode

The cool history of Winter Carnivals

David Disney, Lode Writer

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Winter carnival, what’s not to love? It’s the time all those hotels near Houghton make their yearly income, as well as the time all the students at Michigan Tech let loose with only the most age appropriate of beverages. Why do we do this though? I mean… it’s winter, shouldn’t we all be huddled inside or breaking out the snowshoes to use the outhouse or something? When did winter festivals start, and why?

Most historical records show winter festivals revolving around the solstice: the day with the fewest hours of daylight and longest night. The Romans held an event called Saturnalia. In the weeks leading up to the solstice, many social constructs were forgotten. Slaves and servants were welcomed as citizens, schools and businesses were shut down, and food and drink were excessively enjoyed.

Scandinavian nations celebrated Yule, an event where the men of a household retrieved a huge log, took it home and lit it on fire. People would then feast until the log was totally burned up, which sometimes lasted over a week. I think I’d prefer these Yule logs to the lame ones my family burns every year.

In a bit of a different tone, the Inca people of ancient Peru held a holiday known as Inti Raymi, which in English means “Sun Festival”. It was a pretty solemn event. Three days before Inti Raymi, people would fast, eating only uncooked corn and beans. On the day itself, people would get up before dawn and greet the rising sun, offering it beer made from corn, sacrificing livestock and, odd as it seems nowadays, blowing it a kiss.

Fast forward to this week and our own winter celebration. Now, I know what you are thinking: “The solstice was two months ago on Saturday, Dec. 21 at 11:19 PM.” To that, all I can say is that you have a very impressive grasp on astral events in the northern hemisphere. I bet you don’t know, however, how our own Winter Carnival started.

Imagine a cold winter’s night in 1922. The student organization of Michigan Tech decides to put on a circus-themed show one night called the “Ice Carnival.” Students dress as circus animals and perform tricks in big-top style, followed by skating contests on ice. The event was such a success they decided to make it a tradition, even going on the road in following years to other towns to raise money and public interest. Just like that, a Tech tradition was born. Over the years, new events were added to keep things interesting, like in 1936 when local students started building snow sculptures.

Michigan Tech’s Winter Carnival may not involve giant logs or saluting the sun, but it has something even better, the Copper Country community. Winter Carnival is a time to enjoy the unique winters we have up here as well as the unique people who make the Keweenaw, Houghton-Hancock, and Michigan Tech a special place to be. Have an awesome and safe Winter Carnival folks!

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The cool history of Winter Carnivals