“Isn’t every college like this?” … Selwyn Christmas Formal Hall


Today my friend Mars invited me and Katie to Selwyn’s Christmas formal hall. Mars is a mathematical physicist from Seoul National University and Katie is a theoretical cosmologist from Princeton, but remarkably we didn’t exclusively talk about physics. (It’s something of a courtesy/shamelessness rule that physicists should be mindful of those around them and perhaps not talk about physics too much in public.)

The hall had a nice little Christmas tree in the back, and each place at the table had a Christmas popper that–upon popping–yielded a colorful crepe paper hat, small plastic knick-knack, and thoroughly stale jokes. Like Jesus college, Selwyn has a chocolate mint on its coffee saucers and actually has real candles. (I suspect Trinity must have had an incident with undergradaute immolation in the past.)

Unlike any of the other formal halls I’ve attended, this one was full of raucous undergraduates, including the party immediately to my left which must have arrived at the dinner already inebriated. Actually, I was slightly more amused than Katie (who was not amused at all) since I realized that the tipsy undergraduates were just about as loud as the group of American postgraduates at Trinity’s formal hall last week. Based on this data one could infer that Americans are just like Britons modulo a few years and alchohol.

The menu:

Watercress Soup
Roast Turkey & Trimmings (Filo Pastry Wellington for vegetarians)
Roast Potatoes and Brussels Sprouts (the later must be terrible PR for Belgium, by the way)
Christmas Pudding with Rum Sauce
Coffee, Selwyn College Mints, Mince Pies

A few notes: the ‘pudding’ was more of a fruit cake/brownie, but my understanding is that ‘pudding’ is a generic term for dessert. Similarly ‘dinner’ can be used to refer to a mid-day meal (lunch) and ‘supper’ roughly used instead of what I would call dinner, though perhaps at slightly later hour. The use of the words ‘pudding’ and ‘dinner’ in this way are shibboleths that reflect on one’s class. The Selwyn mints were nice, though perhaps not as extravagant as Trinity’s mints. Trinity, however, is rather stingy about serving mints and it’s been some time since I’ve had the pleasure to sample them. Mince pies, or ‘mince meat’ pies, don’t actually contain meat. Mince meat is a fruit-based concoction that’s something like jam with raisins. They seem to be a Christmas delicacy and are served warm.

As with Jesus’ formal hall, Selwyn is ‘BYOB’ or ‘bring your own booze.’ And the undergrads definitely brought it. I have a small seminar talk to prepare for, so I opted not to drink tonight.

Things got a bit more interesting at the end of the dinner, when the fellows announced a Selwyn Christmas formal hall tradition: breaking up the hall into sections to sing the Twelve Days of Christmas. At this point the hall broke into riotous cheering and table-banging. Katie — who is not technically associated with a college and so doesn’t attend many formal halls — looked very perturbed by this, though Mars seemed to rather expect it.

The fellows were the first group, singing the ‘partridge in a pear tree’ bit. They stood up and started off the song rather admirably. The second group then stood and sung the second verse. For those familiar with the song, you know this is followed once again by the first group echoing their verse (‘… and a partridge in a pear tree’). We continued on this way, with the nth round consisting of the nth group followed by the (n-1)st, (n-2)nd, … , 1st groups in that order. Everyone was expected to stand up and participate in the 5th verse, which is the one with the five golden rings. This was also the verse which the students were (apparently?) invited to embellish the most. This included several students standing up in their chairs and rolling the ‘r’ in “five golden RRRRRRRRRings!” for as long as they could while frantically flailing their arms to get others to join them.

Selwyn is a music-oriented college, so we got quite a few extemporary choral displays. This included variations on cadence, females-only (particularly well done!), accompanied by percussion (table banging), and repetitions of the previous group’s spin on things. All in all one got the range of verses from the very trained 8th verses to the downright ape-like noises of the 10th verse. Fortunately I was in the eleventh verse, and by this time everyone was growing a bit weary.

The highlight of the evening was winding down the twelfth and final round, which was punctuated by each group making one last impassioned display of grunting/yelling/harmony/whatever. We were all showed up by the 7th group, however, which decided to replace their verse with the chorus of ‘Rule Britannia’ … it was one of those ‘you had to be there moments,’ but trust me, it was brilliant and had us all roaring with laughter. For those who aren’t familiar with Rule Britannia… well, it’s probably the most British song that one can ever hear. (Look up a midi file somewhere.)

Anyway, I had to hand it to them for that. Selwyn definitely has character. After the fellows left the hall, the undergraduates (I can only assume it was the undergraduates) broke out into cheers and sang a few more songs. These included ‘happy birthday’, ‘he’s a jolly good fellow’, and ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.’

Afterwards Katie made me ensure that the formal hall that I would invite them to would be one of Trinity’s BA (postgraduate) halls, to which Mars responded with, “Oh, so every college isn’t like this?” Nope. To the best of my knowledge Trinity is a strictly non-singing hall… though I think a chorus of Rule Britannia wouldn’t hurt every now and again.


2 Responses to ““Isn’t every college like this?” … Selwyn Christmas Formal Hall”

  1. this sounds nuts. i wonder if they have this kind of stuff at the university of queensland…

  2. 2 bob

    The Selwyn Christmas formals are, along with halfway halls, what everyone looks forward to most with respect to catering in our college.
    Your friend Katie must either lack a sense of humour (unless the party was attacking her with food/wine/pennies, in which case I apologise) or be American. Trinity christmas formal is a boring affair without singing and non-interactive fellows.

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