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“Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.” – W. Somerset Maugham.
While every chapter has traditions that have persisted over the years, very few of them are likely the same as when they were started. After all, who doesn’t know of a chapter tradition that started as an inside joke or an initiation night gone awry that turned into a future chapter tradition. The collective Greek community has built up a lot of traditions in the last 150 years, and they’ve changed or even devolved over time into some of the things we do today. Of course, I like to call that progress, even if society sometimes calls it “reckless endangerment and disregard for public safety.”
Tradition Then: Sitting around the fire.
Brothers would spend time around the fire reading and studying for exams while the cold winter bore down on the house from outside, furthering their educational goals and helping each other better understand the material.
Tradition Now: Setting things on fire.
Maybe it’s just that the times have changed, but some men just seem to want to watch the world burn. Okay, I’m exaggerating. Usually it’s like five couches or a rival’s fraternity house. Nothing of value, right? Brothers spend time around the fire, being read their rights and studying up with the pre-law brother on how they’re getting out of this mess. The fire-starting process itself it a great educational experience for those guys who didn’t join Boyscouts and the chapter’s chemical engineers.
Tradition Then: Tending to your brothers’ medical needs.
Back in the fraternal ancient times, doctors were not a 911 call and an ambulance full of volunteer EMTs away. Back then, the local doctor probably was trained by some guy who saw people and horses, not some guy who went to Harvard or Yale and now makes 300K a year. The average house would have a few guys who would know how to help their brothers through flu season and the ever-popular duel season. I mean, if you couldn’t properly dress a bullet wound to your brother’s shoulder in the 1800s, what kind of brother were you? A shitty one, that’s what kind.
Tradition Now: Tending to your brothers’ “medical needs.”
With the advent of doctors who don’t say, “What the fuck is that?” for half of your ailments, the need for guys in the house who knew how to set a bone or dig a bullet out of your arm decreased somewhat. However, that shrinking market for services led to the rise of another kind of medically-gifted brother: the kind gifted with a prescription for mental performance enhancing substances. Finals season is the busiest season for this keeper of fraternal medical knowledge. You’ll see him applying his trade in the chapter room, making more calls and fielding more texts than a Wall Street stock broker at the start of a new bull market. If you’re located in one of several states that just decided to “go green,” so to speak, you might also see him providing some solutions to chapter brothers in considerable pain thanks to finals season.
Tradition Then: Defending chapter honor through a duel.
The 1800s were a crazy time in America. People thought it was perfectly acceptable to kill other people over personal arguments or petty disagreements. Today, this is called murder, or if you’re Florida, Stand Your Ground. Come to think of it, Florida may not have gotten the memo that dueling wasn’t cool anymore. In any case, you could basically challenge a guy to a fight to the death for looking at you funny. If this exact practice were transported to today, college bars would resemble gladiatorial combat rings instead of places where people get drinks. Also, they’d need some kind of resident predators to dispose of the losers of duels and I don’t think townies really count. In any case, it was a tradition. I’m sure your chapter handbook even has rules for how it works somewhere, if you dig through it.
Tradition Now: Defending chapter honor through increasingly dangerous pranks.
Since dueling was outlawed, we’ve had to get creative. By the way, “we’ve had to get creative” is probably the most terrifying thing Greeks could collectively tell society, because society knows that our capacity for mischief is equal to our capacity for good. Today, instead of pistols at 30 paces, we resort to garden hoses in three basement windows or fireworks at an incredibly unsafe distance for everyone involved. The good news is this involves fewer bullet wounds and death. The bad news is this usually results in more property damage. While our families our thrilled with this change in tradition, I’m sure university facilities management curses the day most states outlawed duels.
Tradition Then: Classy socials with sorority women.
Though they had a lot less of them, old school fraternities went all out for their social functions. A story I heard from my grandmother (from the ’50s, but still a long time ago) was that chapters at George Washington University would host their date functions at places like Hotel Washington and drop thousands of dollars on the event, which would be like blowing your entire social budget on one event today. Of course, in fraternal ancient times, most people were just trying to avoid dying of common colds, and girls showing ankle was scandalous, so, overall, things have come a very long way since then.
Tradition Now: Themed socials and formals.
While we still do our big, extravagant events every semester, we don’t generally blow the whole budget on them anymore. Usually we spread that out, because we drink more now than our ancestors drank collectively. Themed socials also changed the game, because they basically took the best parts of the ’60s and ’80s and let girls run with them. Costumes that don’t cover anything but the requirements to avoid public nudity? The genius who put the first one of these together deserves a goddamn Medal of Freedom for his service to America.
Tradition Then: Preparing the pledges to join the brotherhood.
The pledges of old had a lot of learning to do. I’m assuming, among things like “not dying because the world is a dangerous place,” they probably still had to know the creed, all the fraternity values and how to properly translate things into Greek. At least they had less to fuck up along the way, without cellphones and Facebook to facilitate them posting things exposing the chapter to liability. Back then, liability was also not a fully developed legal concept, so I hesitate to think what chapters back then subjected their pledges to. They probably had to go out in the woods and fist fight a bear or something.
Tradition Now: “Preparing the pledges to join the brotherhood.”
We all know how this one goes, so I’m going to keep it short and sweet. “Hey, new guy. It’s 4:30 in the morning during finals week and I need a pack of cigarettes 30 minutes from 4am.” At least it’s better than fist fighting bears, right?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The ideas behind a lot of chapter traditions are almost always the same, but the execution is obviously very, very different over long periods of time. This is probably a good thing, because otherwise Greek Life wouldn’t have survived the ’80s.