Traditions Tell the Mary Baldwin Story

September 19, 2005

They unite students over generations. They remind us of our roots and inspire new stories. They evolve with new ideas and changing times, but retain timeless historical elements. They are traditions, and women’s colleges are famous for them. Mary Baldwin University is no exception – the college Web site ( traditions.asp ) lists more than a dozen, and that’s only the beginning. There are many ways to find out more about Mary Baldwin’s plethora of song-filled, memory-arousing traditions. Visit the college’s new admissions site ( ) and test your knowledge on the “quizzes and polls,” or check out To Live in Time in Grafton Library, a book about Mary Baldwin history by Professor Emerita Pat Menk.

One of the best ways to learn about our traditions is to participate. You can attend events like Signature Ball, Charter Day, and many more, and you can get an inside look at the tradition by helping to plan it and carry it out. We talked to students and alumnae who have participated in traditions throughout the decades at Mary Baldwin. From their collective memories, we ‘imagined’ what it would have been like to take part in three of the college’s most established traditions over the years: Apple Day in October, Founders’ Day in October, and Christmas Cheer in December.

Apple Day (circa 1978)

Students at Apple DayI didn’t know what Apple Day was until last night, when the sophomores came riding through the dining hall in roller skates making a racket and announcing that the next day would be Apple Day! The date is always kept a secret from everyone, except the sophomore class that plans it. I’m quickly learning that this is one of the traditions students look forward to most. Last night we had the first mixer of the school year, and we dressed up in crazy outfits that were pretty much anything that was in our closet that was green and red.

Today there were no classes, and we got to enjoy the early Fall weather at a picnic lunch on the lawn behind the Student Activities Center. The sophomore class performed skits. I heard that students and faculty used to walk to an orchard owned by the college and have a picnic there after picking apples to donate to local people. I think that would have been fun, but I like our version, too. We had a full-blown carnival with relays, games, and a contest for the best decorated Apple Day Hall. Everyone I know was there and, if they weren’t, they really missed out!

Fast Forward: Apple Day still includes some aspects of those in the past, but other things have changed with the times. The date is no longer a surprise, which is an element that many current students and alumnae/i would like to see return. The mixer associated with Apple Day is gone, but that doesn’t stop most students from wearing their red and green garb – which often includes the theme T-shirt designed by the sophomore class. Sophomores who volunteer to help plan Apple Day have the opportunity to add their ideas to the continuing evolution of the celebration. In 2004, students, faculty, and staff were excited about returning to Apple Day roots in community service. Several students planted an apple tree on campus and volunteered at the American Red Cross and other local service organizations. The benefit: Feeling good about having fun! True to the spirit that “everything old is new again,” plans are in the works to try to organize apple picking at a local orchard on Apple Day 2005 – October 5. What will happen this year? Only the sophomore class will know until the big day.

Christmas Cheer (circa 1997)

Mary Baldwin ChoirAfter wearing our lounge clothes and funky fuzzy slippers to the dining hall for late night breakfast during exam week, I was ready for an occasion to dress up. The Christmas Cheer celebration that happens every year was the perfect event. We had fun getting ready for the holiday program held in First Presbyterian Church and then sitting down to a dinner of roasted turkey, Virginia ham, sweet potatoes, hot rolls, and pie in the dining hall – where college faculty and staff served us! During the church program, I heard some of my friends in the Mary Baldwin University Choir, Madrigals, and Baldwin Charm sing in the service. Following the path of lighted luminaries up the snow-dusted hill to Hunt was almost magical. Christmas Cheer also signals the time of year when we get to make a long visit home and have a break from classes.

Rewind: Although holiday celebrations have been held at Mary Baldwin University since its early years as a seminary, it was not called Christmas Cheer until 1977. The celebration has long been held at First Presbyterian Church – the church most closely associated with the college because of its proximity and the religious affiliation of Mary Baldwin’s founders. Sit-down Christmas dinners took place until the late 1990s. In recent years, the formality of the dinner has evolved, and is now a buffet. In years past, students and staff made Christmas baskets to donate to needy families, and caroling was a big part of the festivities. Christmas Cheer remains one of the college’s most popular traditions, and non-denominational holiday celebrations that incorporate other religions and traditions – such as Las Posadas and a project to collect and distribute ethnic baby dolls to local children – blend seamlessly with Christmas Cheer. This year Christmas Cheer falls on Sunday, December 4th.

Founders Day (circa 1941)

Today I was proud to become part of one of the college’s longest-running traditions: Founders Day. I learned that students, professors, and staff have participated in Founders Day since 1898, the year after Mary Julia Baldwin, one of our founders, died. The event has traditionally been held to honor her, but, this year, we did something different. At the ceremony, the college also honored Rufus Bailey, the founder of Augusta Female Seminary, which later became Mary Baldwin University. I am a senior, so being presented with my cap and gown and putting them on for the first time – part of Founders Day tradition since 1930 – was a big thrill. We also had carriage rides and a picnic, and we went to Mary Julia Baldwin’s grave at Thornrose Cemetery to decorate it with a wreath. Singing class songs and watching class officers plant ivy as a symbol of the lasting values of the college were some of my favorite parts.

Fast Forward: Founders Day is held on the first Friday in October – the Friday closest to Mary Julia Baldwin’s birthday, October 4, which was the day the ceremony was held in its early years. The entire college community is invited to the ceremony. Seniors still wear their caps and gowns for the first time. One element of the ceremony has been constant since 1898: The 121st Bible Psalm is read as part of the activity. The Psalm reading, which begins “I lift up my eyes to the hills/ Where does my help come from?” was started by college chaplain Dr. A.M. Fraser, and carried on after his death by Dr. Hunter Blakely, the next chaplain. As the tradition became institutionalized, it was adopted as a standard part of the ceremony.

There are dozens of traditions at Mary Baldwin University much like Apple Day, Founders Day, and Christmas Cheer, and countless ways to participate, make your mark on them, and ensure they continue for future generations of Mary Baldwin students. Traditions form the bonds that tie current students to those who attended the college decades, and even centuries, ago. They are an important part of what makes Mary Baldwin unique. Everyone’s support will help them flourish in the 21st century.

– Magen Blount ’06 and Lesley Fondren ’06 contributed to this article. Many thanks to Velma Carman ’00, Lynn Tuggle Gilliland ’80, Judith Payne Grey ’65, Anne Holland ’88, Morgan Alberts Smith ’99, and several students who shared their recollections as background for this article.

Front image: Seniors line up in the Administration Building for the walk to First Presbyterian.

Apple Day image: Students in the Class of 2007 take time to pose with the “apple” at the Apple Day Carnival.

Christmas Cheer image: The Mary Baldwin Choir sings carols in First Presbyterian.