Wisconsin’s Winter Carnival

Winter at the University of Wisconsin is different for every Badger. On campus, it can mean hooking up with Hoofers for a ski or snowboarding trip, or slowly shuffling along the icy sidewalks of Bascom Hill. In-state students are used to the dramatic changing of the seasons; others are shocked (and maybe even delighted) by the deep freeze and even deeper snowdrifts.

In the early 20th century, students came up with a way to celebrate the season that can seem to stretch for multiple semesters.

The first official Winter Carnival – or Ice Carnival as it was called for the first several years – boasted skating races, snowball fights, ice hockey bouts, and even ice boating.

Attendance grew yearly, attracting students, faculty, and alumni to the mix of spirited social events and competitive athletic contests. Throughout the following decades, activities and events came and went as part of the week-long agenda: ski jumps at Muir Knoll, cross-country ski races, and movies about skiing, as well as skating exhibitions, curling, and flapjack feeds. Creative Badgers carved massive, often intricate, ice sculptures on Bascom Hill.

In keeping with the fashions of the day, plaid flannel shirts and ski sweaters were mandatory attire during a week, capped by an informal Snow Ball dance at Great Hall Saturday night (no suitcoats allowed!).

The carnival’s biggest challenge was weather: rain, no snow, or too much snow. In 1925, the event was postponed three times until they gave up and fit everything they could into just one afternoon. Early on, organizers began the tradition of praying to the Norse snow god Ullr. But even that didn’t keep them from having to truck in snow to pack the ski hills and cross-country courses from time to time.

In 1940, Hoofers took over planning of the Winter Carnival, which dwindled in popularity until it was canceled in the late 1950s. In the following decades, the Greeks organized a handful of unofficial celebrations and outdoor contests until Hoofers resurrected the cold weather tradition in the early 1980s.

Today’s Winter Carnival features the familiar ice sculpture contests, broomball, and pond hockey, along with some more modern activities, such as the ski and snowboard Rail Jam on Observatory Hill. They’ve also offered horse-drawn carriage rides and hikes across the ice to Point Point for a bonfire and s’mores.