From the Archives — Alma Mater Day at Wittenberg

Alma Mater Day at Wittenberg University

June 1925, Alma Mater Elsie Roth sits on her throne.

June of 1925, Alma Mater Elsie Roth sits on her throne.

For many years Wittenberg University used to have a unique celebration called Alma Mater Day.  Now essentially a lapsed tradition, this elaborate pageant seems to be exclusive to Wittenberg.  One of the most interesting features of this event is that it was entirely planned and enacted by female students.  Initially conceived of in 1918 as a celebration of spring (sort of a May Day Fete), the female student body planned a pageant and crowned a May Day queen with accompanying dances and celebrations.  However, by 1920 the May Day Queen morphed into the Alma Mater, a more serious and symbolic honor.  Rather than simply celebrate spring, the event became a commemoration of the women of Wittenberg.  Only women could plan the event, choose the Alma Mater, and participate in the festivities.

Alma Mater photos from the 1950's showing women dancing as part of the celebration.

Alma Mater photos from the 1950's showing women dancing as part of the celebration.

The pageant centered on the crowning of the Alma Mater, the figurative representative of the spirit of Wittenberg and learning.  The Alma Mater would be selected through a vote of the female student body, who were supposed to select a junior class woman who possessed “scholarship, character, general attitude, poise, and service to the campus.”  Each year the festivities would also have a theme.  In a 1939 article on Alma Mater day, student Mary Jane Shatger described the 1935 celebration:

This pageant, which was entitled “The Awakening of Knowledge”, portrayed the awakening and expansion of knowledge through the ages from the primitive to civilized times.  The pageant starts with a processional, is led by the dancers and symbolic figures, and finally Alma Mater and her court.  The procession winds over a hill, along the ridge and drops down into a lovely hollow while the orchestra plays “Pomp and Circumstance.”  The dancers take their places to one side and the Alma Mater is invested in a royal purple academic gown and cap, at the center of the hollow, by the Alma Mater of the preceding year.  As Alma Mater and her court make their way to a terrace on one of the hillsides, all the spectators rise from their places on the surrounding hills and join in singing Wittenberg’s Alma Mater.  The dancers dressed in bright colors chosen to harmonize with the beautiful green of the background, then pay homage to Alma Mater in a series of symbolic dances.

Alma Mater photo circa 1935

Alma Mater photo circa 1935 showing the pageant procession.

In this specific set of dances, a dancer representing knowledge slept in the grass until the dancers representing fields of learning such as Architecture, Poetry, Rhetoric, Literature and Geography came to awaken her. Staging such elaborate theatrics necessitated extensive planning and five departments were involved in organizing Alma Mater Day: English, Education, Home Economics, Physical Education and the School of Music.

I haven’t found any evidence of an Alma Mater day at any other school, at least not one with the same thematic and symbolic rationale.  I find this event very compelling, not only because of the beautiful pictures and obviously painstaking preparation, but because it was entirely planned and executed by women.  Indeed, the ethereal essence of Wittenberg as an institution is corporeally manifested as a woman.

June 1925, to right, Alma Mater of 1924 Elizabeth Lasimer, to left, Alma Mater of 1925, Elsie Roth.

June 1925, to right, Alma Mater of 1924 Elizabeth Lasimer, to left, Alma Mater of 1925, Elsie Roth.

I can’t help but speculate about the fact that the emergence of this pageant of women coincides with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.  The amendment first passed Congress in 1918, and was ratified after acceptance by all the states in 1920.  The preliminary “May Day” was first proposed at Wittenberg in 1918, and assumed its final form as Alma Mater Day—a spiritual celebration of college and knowledge enacted by women—in 1920.

Today we still have an Alma Mater, and moreover we also have an Alma Lux.  The days of pageants seem to have receded; replaced by more calm and sedate gender equality.  Alma Mater or Lux, it’s still an honor.

Can’t we at least have a parade though?

Alma Mater Ceremony June 3, 1939

Alma Mater Ceremony June 3, 1939

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