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Tuesday, Apr 23, 2024

The three days that took a hundred years

Partygoers in their winter-wear
Partygoers in their winter-wear

Last weekend marked the 100th anniversary of the celebrated Middlebury Winter Carnival, one of the college’s most beloved traditions. The Carnival came and went in true Middlebury fashion, including most of its quintessential events. But not every winter carnival tradition could be reanimated. 

Snow bowl ski races are what began the carnival tradition a century ago. Since 1923, the event has come to take on the hugely important, not college-sanctioned role of providing Middlebury students with an opportunity to wear heinously colorful clothing, migrate to the snowbowl, and drink - all while celebrating the college’s athletic prowess. This year, however, the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association ruled that Middlebury wouldn’t be able to host its popular ski races in an effort to give other colleges in the league a chance to organize their own events. This was a huge blow for many students, as the ski races are often considered one of the fundamental parts of carnival weekend. 

In the week leading up to this year’s winter carnival, I really didn’t know what to look forward to. I knew that there would be a dance, an ice show and fireworks - but without the ski races, it felt as though this year’s carnival would be missing something irreplaceable. The student body seemed generally ambivalent, and in talking with friends, it didn’t seem like the carnival was on a lot of people’s minds. To me, it felt like the spirit of winter at Middlebury was missing. Following a J-term with little snow, high temperatures, and less than ideal skiing, the news that there would be no ski races at the Bowl felt like the final nail in the coffin. 

However, mustering some hope in the student body and faith in the Middlebury College Activities Board, I committed to immersing myself in everything Middlebury’s centennial winter carnival had to offer. 

The weekend began with a firework show. None of my friends were interested in braving the night’s unfriendly wind and low temperatures to see the spectacle, so I set off to Ross lawn alone with my camera. When I arrived, I was greeted by a group of six freshmen confused as to where the fireworks would be, when they would start, or if they were even happening at all. After assuring them we were probably in the right place and that the fireworks were probably happening, I waited anxiously to see if anyone else would appear to watch the show. As it neared closer to 9pm, more groups of students started to arrive, gathering in front of the dormitories and climbing up the fire escape of Pearsons to get a better view. I was impressed with the crowd, and the crowd was impressed with the fireworks. People whooped and cheered after each exploded in the sky, and the students on the fire escape made monkey noises, which I could only assume to be a sign of approval. I smiled watching everyone enjoy the grand finale, and for the first time that week, I felt festive. After the last firework was lit, I marched back to my dorm and told my friends that they really missed out. 

Firework smoke above Ross commons

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Students gathered to watch the show

Saturday was when the celebration really kicked off, with the college scheduling an ice sculpting event, a figure skating showcase, and the reinstituted Valentine's day ball, back for the first time since the pandemic. As a substitute for the traditional gathering at the Snowbowl, there was an unsanctioned day-long party. For some students, the day started at six in the morning, with sunrise signaling it time for their first beer of the day. For me, I began my morning with a quiet Ross breakfast. I was happy to see that some were dressed in their winter carnival regalia - glitter, neon, crazy hair, heart-shaped glasses and the like. It felt like the winter carnival weekend that I remembered from last year. Feeling inspired, I went back to my dorm, threw on some hot pink ski pants, painted my eyelids with glitter, charged my camera, and by noon, my friends and I were out the door and on our way to the houseparty. 

Opening the gate to the house, we were greeted by what I could best describe as a Vermont rave - think puffer jackets, Skidas, Patagonia and Columbia, but with a sparkly neon twist. The party was in the backyard of one of the off-campus student houses, offering no protection from the cold, windy day. Partying during the day has always been interesting to me. Nobody is dancing, so everyone is generally just standing around, talking to their friends or strangers they meet. It was good fun, aside from my feet slowly going numb in my boots from the cold weather. 

The party being outside also meant that those in attendance were locked out of the bathroom located in the house, making Davis Family Library the closest place to access the lavatory. Stepping into the library dressed in my bright pink garb, the glittery makeup slowly making its way off of my eyelids onto other, unintended parts of my face, I felt like a chimpanzee at high tea. Clearly, the Winter Carnival merriness wasn’t present everywhere. On my journey to the bathroom, I ran into my poor friend working hard at her calculus homework and expressed my sympathies. 

There wasn’t much more to the party than that, but I’m glad it happened. Although I would’ve preferred to be with everyone at the Snowbowl, I was happy to see that this Middlebury tradition continued in spite of the circumstances. After we left the house, I gathered some snacks, and rested before getting ready for the ball later in the night.

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Entering the party

Partygoers in their winter-wear
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My friends were initially very opposed to going to the dance. I think some students are always a little dubious of events organized by the college, (which is fair– we’ve been to some campus events before where the attendees were us and some crickets). But fueled by the days’ festivity, I was sure that the ball was going to be different - and I was proven right. After seeing a couple of people pass us by in formal dresses and suits, my friends agreed to come with me to the dance.

Stepping into Nelson Arena, I felt like I was transported back to the prom I never got to have. There were hundreds of students dressed in their finest evening attire, snacks ranging from pigs in a blanket to sushi, and the talented DJ Frank, who played classic hits like Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” and Pitbull’s “Fireball.” I was happy to see so many groups of people taking to the dancefloor and thought that the event was a big success. 

A dancefloor nonconformist perched upon his friend’s shoulders

Ball attendees illuminated by a blue strobe

Caught up in the allure of partying during the day, I forgot about the ice sculpting show. I realized this at around midnight and trudged to the Proctor terrace, finding a pathetic ruin of what was once art. But how could I know? At this point, I couldn’t tell if the ice had ever even been sculpted. Whether the ice sculptures had melted, or someone had destroyed them, it wasn’t clear. What was apparent, though, is that if you want to see the ice art during the winter carnival, you had better go early.

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What remained…

Exhausted from the day before, I woke up the next day with the afternoon ice skating performance as my only motivation to get out of bed. The rink was crowded with mostly residents from the town of Middlebury, excited to see both our collegiate figure skaters and younger skaters from around the community perform. Watching our resident Team USA figure skater, Ting Cui ’25.5, glide around the ice alongside the other talented members of Middlebury club figure skating, I was awestruck both by the beauty of the performance and the skaters’ capacity to stand upright and unwavering after swirling around so many times. I don’t know how on earth they do it. 

Ting Cui ‘25.5 proving her flexibility

Maya Henning ‘25 illuminated on the ice

In preparation for this article, I scoured the archives, looked at pictures and read accounts of carnivals past. I loved seeing students throughout Middlebury history sharing an experience similar to the one I had this weekend. I can only hope that someone maybe thirty, or a hundred years from now can look at this article in preparation for their story in The Campus, and smile. 

Katherine Michaelson

Katherine Michaelson '25 (she/her) is a Multimedia and Layout Editor.

Her major is international and global studies focusing on East Asia. She studies Mandarin at Middlebury and spent the last summer at Chinese language schools. Last year, she was a Narrative Journalism Fellow for the Middlebury Magazine. She also currently serves as a co-president of the Middlebury Climbing Club.