A Cool Attraction
Winter Carnival celebrates one of Syracuse University’s coolest attractions: snow! A popular tradition for almost 90 years, this multi-day festival includes games, activities, food and live entertainment. Winter Carnival also salutes the hardy spirit of our campus community, for which snow is part of the social fabric.
As early as the 1890s, students flocked to the Old Oval—now the site of the Kenneth A. Shaw Quadrangle on North Campus—to engage in outdoor fun, like ice skating. In 1929, the governing board of the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) voted to organize a wintertime festival with help from the Outing Club and Drumlins Country Club. Many early events took place at the latter, where students embarked on scenic sleigh rides as well as skied, snowshoed and tobogganed.
“Everyone had a hilarious time,” wrote WAA President Virginia Tucker of the “speedy and thrilling” athleticism of the 1930 festivities. “Whether skill was or was not in evidence did not matter at all.”
A Wintry Mix
Joseph Abeischer, then a student at SUNY-ESF (formerly the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University), chaired the first Winter Carnival in 1933. Modest by today’s standards, the half-day event was for Greek chapters only. Fraternities and sororities kicked in 50 cents each, while Abeischer collected $27.70 in ticket sales. His efforts were rewarded with a 30-cent profit.
Originally called Winter Weekend (and, briefly, Winterama), Winter Carnival expanded to include non-Greek organizations and residence halls in 1941. The following year, it became an official weekend holiday on campus. Live music, intercollegiate sports and colossal snow sculptures were often in the forecast, along with a torchlit skiing exhibition and glitzy ice pageant.
In those days, every Winter Carnival had a catchy theme, like “No Biz Like Snow Biz.” “Organizers played on the titles of cartoons, movies and Broadway shows; Shakespearean plays; and ski resorts,” says Assistant University Archivist Vanessa St. Oegger-Menn G’14. “They got pretty creative.”
Dancing in the Snow
Winter Carnival used to host two popular dances: the Stockingfoot and the Sno-Ball. Billed as a “strictly informal” sock-hop, the Stockingfoot originated in 1936 when organizers couldn’t find a suitable venue. The only space available had just installed new floors, so participants were forced to dance in socks. “A tradition was born,” says Isabel McCullough G’20, a former research assistant in the Special Collections Research Center. “In time, students sported their own handmade stockings. There even was a competition for best socks.”
By contrast, the Sno-Ball was a semi-private affair that didn’t join Winter Carnival until 1944. The event became so popular that it was permitted to continue 30 minutes past the University’s midnight curfew. A highlight of the Sno-Ball was the coronation of the Winter Carnival Queen.
Both dances featured local and regional talent, including singer Gunnar Peterson ’38; the Rev. Charles C. Noble, Hendricks Chapel’s accordion-wielding dean; the Jimmy Richardson Orchestra; and the Todd Hobin Band.
Cool Times, Hot Tunes
By the 1960s, Winter Carnival had snowballed into a three-day extravaganza extending well beyond North Campus. Slalom skiing on Labrador Mountain, some 30 minutes away. Hockey at the State Fair Coliseum. A “Warmer” at the South Campus Skybarn, featuring intercollegiate ski jumping, food and live music.
The weekend culminated with a sold-out concert in Upstate Medical University Arena (formerly Onondaga County War Memorial). On the bill were such A-listers as Wilson Pickett; Sam and Dave; the Lovin’ Spoonful; the Association; and Peter, Paul and Mary.
A Flurried Comeback
After fading from view in the early ’70s, Winter Carnival was twice-revived by the Interfraternity Council—first in 1978 with help from University Union and then in 2003 in conjunction with the Residence Hall Association.
Ironically, the 2003 carnival was canceled because of too much snow, something that had not happened in nearly six decades. (Inconsistent weather has played havoc with organizers since day one.) The carnival has since become less about showcasing athletic skill and more about fostering a sense of community. Slalom skiing and downhill racing have been replaced by horse and carriage rides, outdoor volleyball and talent shows.
Even comedians have gotten in on the act. Sold-out shows have included those by The Kids in the Hall in 2005 and Michelle Buteau four years later.
The Snowball Effect
In 2005, Winter Carnival made headlines for creating the world’s largest snowball—7.6 feet tall and 6.8 feet wide. “We wanted to do something big,” Eric Crites ’07 told The Daily Orange. The carnival co-organizer was among a half-dozen students who spent five hours setting the Guinness World Record outside Hendricks Chapel.
Winter Carnival also has attempted to make the world’s largest snowman and snow angel.
A Winter Wonderland
Catherine Bannon ’22 is president of the Traditions Commission, which organizes Winter Carnival. Since November, she and a team of colleagues—including Kayla Cabrera, program coordinator for Student Activities, and Jonathan Hoster ’02, G’11, a staff advisor for the College of Engineering and Computer Science—have planned Winter Carnival down to every last detail.
Bannon is particularly excited about the Winter Wonderland Carnival, which debuted last year in the stadium. She hopes the indoor event becomes a regular part of the Winter Carnival lineup.
“It was exciting to see all our hard work come together,” Bannon says of last year’s Winter Wonderland Carnival, which coincided with her 21st birthday. “Otto was there. The University threw me the best birthday party ever.”
Bundle up for Winter Carnival
This year’s Winter Carnival, running Feb. 21-25, promises a flurry of fun, including snow and ice sculpturing, glow skating, a chili cookoff and the “Cozy Cappella” concert. Rounding out the week are the Winter Wonderland Carnival, a takeover of the Schine Student Center and high-octane bingo.
Free to all students with a valid Syracuse University ID, Winter Carnival is joined by Syracuse Winterfest (Feb. 17-27), a large regional festival organized by the UpdownTowners of Syracuse Inc.
Follow Winter Carnival updates on the Traditions Commission’s Instagram at @sutraditions.