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Cider and cressets: A student's perspective on Yule Log

Saint Nick (President Nichol) was the star attraction during the ceremony. By Stephen Salpukas.

The gale was certainly harked, and the students’ voices rang far and near. Leaving the Daily Grind Coffeehouse to join the Yule Log Ceremony this year, I could hear the William and Mary choir pealing all the way from the Wren Courtyard. “Maybe they found a new use for the siren system,” a friend and I joked.

A hot cup of spiced cider clutched in my hand, we followed the din of cheery holiday carols to join a swelling crowd in the Wren Courtyard. Even with the temperature dropping and a forecast of rain, students, faculty, community members, children and even a few pooches filled the courtyard and spilled past the white picket fence. William and Mary can’t resist a good tradition.

“It seems a bit outlandish, all this ceremony, but it’s my first year so we’ll see,” said Jessica Mendes, second-year graduate student in the School of Education. Four wood-fueled basket torches, called cressets, fluttered in the wind and cast some warmth onto the crowd, but their flames barely penetrated most of the cold.

Sam Sadler launched the ceremony with his 2007 rendition of “Twas the Night Before Exams,” drawing cheers with his mention of ‘I Heart Nichol’ rallies and his references to the “simplicity and classic” style of the College’s new logo. Sadler has written a yearly edition of this poem for decades. “I’ve been doing this piece for more years than I’d like to think about,” Sadler reminisced. “It must’ve been the mid-'70s: I stress about it every year because I want to get it right.”

After Sadler, student speakers representing multicultural organizations delivered explanations of religious winter holidays. Students chatted quietly through these speeches, cheering for their friends or listening to snippets that caught their attention, but the crowd silenced when William and Mary President Gene R. Nichol stepped out dressed as Santa Claus.

Nichol apologized for not filling out the Santa suit as well as he had last year before barreling into the ritual reading of Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The crowd cheered, laughed and booed appropriately through the reading, particularly liking the “Who roast beast.”

Immediately following the reading by “Saint Nick,” the Gentlemen of the College sang, seamlessly blending every holiday song I’ve ever heard into one beautiful medley. Students began pushing to reach the Great Hall and burn their sprigs of holly, symbolically cleansing the upcoming year of worries and troubles. “Shoving negates the good luck,” Mortar Board vice-president Brooke Tortorella reminded the crowd. Even vying for the door, students joined the choir in singing the Alma Mater, thundering the chorus and mumbling the verses no one knew. Some students waited in the crushed crowd for an hour, finally filing into the Great Hall with relief.

“That crowd was like the trauma of birth all over again,” shouted Laura Tourtellotte (‘09).

“This is my sixth Yule Log Ceremony,” said Eric Anderson, a second-year law student returning after undergrad. Throwing his sprig of holly at the crackling fire in hopes of a boost on his exams, Anderson added, “Every little bit of luck helps, I’m not going to lie. And it’s nice to reflect on the year in a fun setting instead of somewhere more serious.”

“I like that the president and vice president have a part of it, and how everyone knows the tradition,” said freshman Kathryn Phillips. “Everyone has been talking about this since about August, so we’ve been looking forward to it.”

As the ceremony ended, students posed for pictures with Nichol and sprinted to waiting tables of hot cider and sugar cookies. Rain that mercifully only had been sprinkling began to fall in earnest, hissing as it hit the fiery cressets, and students quickly snatched the last of the sugar cookies before heading back to their dorms. I refilled my cup of cider and grabbed an only slightly soggy cookie as the last stragglers left. Some were headed to the Saturday night parties or the Green Leafe Café, some back to their dorms to study. Yule Log luck can only get you so far in an exam.