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Traditions

Don’t worry if you arrive five minutes late to Christ Church college, Oxford – you’re actually on time.

In the 19th century when Greenwich Mean Time became the standard, Oxford stayed resolutely 300 seconds behind the capital. Now, at 21:05 GMT every night (or 21:00 Oxford Time), the bells of Christ Church college ring out 101 times, remaining silent until 8:00 the next morning. It’s just one of Oxford’s many pleasant quirks.

Terms and semesters

The academic year at Oxford is divided into three terms. Eight week terms are actually nine weeks in duration, to include the first week, which is named “noughth week”!

Of course this being Oxford, there are unique names that go with these terms, ones that follow the ecclesiastical calendar of the Anglican Christian year.

Michaelmas (Winter term) is named after the Feast of Saint Michael, which begins at the end of September.

Hilary (Spring term) is named as it begins the Sunday following the Feast of Saint Hilary (after the prominent 4th century bishop, Saint Hilary of Poitiers).

Trinity (Summer term) is named for Trinity Sunday, celebrated the first Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost.

Undergraduates are expected to work hard during the breaks, after which they face “collections”, the name for exams at the beginning of each term. The same word is used for the end of term meetings that students have with their tutors.

Academic dress

You’ll see students wearing academic dress, the design for which was laid down in the Laudian Code of 1636. These gowns date back to the early years of the University and the clerical robes worn by medieval students.

Today clerical dress comprises a gown and a cap or a mortarboard (for women, the option of a soft cap) and “subfusc” (from the Latin for ‘beneath dark coloured’) worn underneath the gowns. Hoods are worn by graduates at certain events, and doctoral graduates have various dress options including a velvet bonnet. A particularly ornate robe is worn by Doctors of Music, made of cream-coloured silk with apple-blossom pattern and sleeves of cherry silk.

Academic dress is worn when matriculating, when taking exams, when graduating, and, depending on the stipulations of each college, at collections too.

It is also traditional to wear a carnation during examinations. The colour of the flower supposedly symbolises the blood from a scholar’s heart as they bleed all they know onto the exam paper; the darker the flower, the closer to the final exam, from white, through pink, to red.

There are various myths surrounding traditional robes or subfusc. For example, that subfusc has a counterpart in “full fusc”, a full suit of armour, which when worn to final examinations automatically resulted in the student being awarded a First. Another piece of fanciful fiction tells of an enterprising undergraduate who studied the University statutes prior to an examination to discover that all students sitting exams in subfusc are entitled to a glass of sherry.

Oxford idiosyncrasies

At Christchurch College students receive free cake. At Hertford you will meet Simpkins the college cat. At St Hilda’s you will gather to sing Christmas carols on the stairs. At Merton College you will enter the Hall through a door that is three times older than the USA. And at the same college the “time ceremony” sees students linking arms and walking backwards around the quad in order to maintain the integrity of the space-time continuum during the transition at the end of British summer time.

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