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The student ritual of ‘baptising’ first year students belongs to the traditional Belgian student folklore. The ‘baptism season’ has started again on campus and with it also the traditional polemic between ‘pro’ and ‘contra’. In a letter to the editor, the VUB Folklore Academy responded to an opinion article in a Belgian newspaper, in which an ‘un-baptised’ editor adopted a contra-baptism stance urging new students to stay away. “The editor’s opinion is based entirely on prejudice, generalisation and wild stories,” says Maxime Opsomer from the Folklore Academy. “The whole idea of our student baptisms is exactly to playfully create awareness about the values of VUB to new students: humanism, critical thinking and the danger of submission.”
The Folklore Academy is a student organisation that promotes local student tradition at the university. The initiation ritual of student baptisms belongs to the cultural heritage of Belgian student folklore. Maxime understands very well that those unfamiliar with this tradition or the underlying symbolism of some its rituals may find the dirty blur at the tent, blue-haired Cinderellas on the Esplanade or the loud clamor on campus, rather unorthodox. VUB baptisms are certainly not something the international students are instantly aware of. Despite that, they are very welcome to participate. University societies are indeed proud of their traditions, and want to share them with the entire student community. “You’re free to say ‘no’, but you can also just say ‘yes’ if you want to. And you do not have to be baptised to join the student folklore and parties on campus.”, says Maxime.
The initiation ritual
From the conversation with Maxime it appears that student baptisms at the university are not a question of enforcing a sense of belonging or belittling new students. “We must not be hypocritical about this. We are foremost students and we do all this just for fun. But there is more behind it. It’s part of the welcome routine of the organisation. It all starts with a loud surprise intrusion of freshmen’s lectures by the student organisation to recruit new members. Then there are various activities aimed to get to know each other: campus activities, games night, a city tour … . An initiation cantus, a folkloristic student ritual of singing and drinking, introduces traditional student songs, and Games Without Borders, a playful battle for first year students, fills the campus with flour and eggs. Each student is free to decide whether or not to participate. The baptism is the culmination of this process, the symbolic rebirth as VUB student. Of course, during all these activities, the traditional roleplay of “freshmen” and “freshmen trainers” takes place, which involves a lot of noise and sounds like a military takeover. But it is only for fun and has the opposite goal. The whole idea is to make new students understand the values of the VUB: its underlying principles of humanism, critical thinking and the danger of submission. These values are celebrated within the VUB student folklore. The tradition is one by the university, nothing elitist. The initiation process is about affirming the place of the student within the university and is focused on solidarity and group cohesion. The rituals revolve around liberty, equality and fraternity. “
Indeed, it is striking how close the different circles become by hanging together. The members really care for each other. “That’s right. The senior members of the organisation take care of their newcomers. When a freshman has drunk a bit too much, the others will ensure that he gets home safe. But it goes beyond typical student matters. Senior students also give advice to the freshmen and want to make them feel at home at the university. “
Being careful and responsible is the clue to preserve the tradition
Another preconception about the baptisms is that they are dangerous. “In any case, it is not so at the VUB. The responsibility to care for one another is also there at the baptisms. Each slurry is first tested by the seniors, no single freshman would eat or drink something that wasn’t first tested by the senior students. During the baptism itself, the ‘clash’ always consists of beet juice, flour and Methylene blue colour. The baptisms are controlled by a baptism jury with representatives from various other organisations. Everybody is aware that security is essential to preserve these traditions. Of course, there are very exceptional small accidents, such as a strained ankle, but that can happen at the youth movement as well. And as for excessive alcohol consumption, we can completely blow the myth. University baptisms are sober. Both the freshmen and board members of the student union may not drink a drop of alcohol on the night. During the other parts of the initiation process drinking can take place but it is never mandatory. “
The mystery of the tent
According to the legend, some baptisms are performed naked. “That’s correct. The faculty union baptisms have a naked passage, others do not. Being naked has to do with the symbolism of the new birth. The freshmen rehearse a play with decor and stage props, accompanied by music and sound. As they act out their story, they get the baptism pulp thrown over them from the ‘audience’. Only the baptised are admitted in this ritual, because they have been through it themselves. To secure the integrity of the baptised, the space is hermetically sealed and kept free from any mobile phones or hidden cameras. There is not only security being deployed, but also among those present there is a strong sense of discipline and control, out of respect for the ritual and those who participate in it. Perhaps for some this is the biggest barrier but at the same time the experience creates a huge solidarity. For most VUB students their baptism is a memorable and liberating experience. “
Student jokes in springtime
In addition to baptism, there are the playful assignments in the second semester. “Indeed, during spring you can see all sorts of bizarre performances on campus and you see strange creatures in the classroom. Sometimes an extra candidate emerges in the rector election, or get the windows in the Rue d’Aerschot their annual cleaning. The hazing orders are the last stop in the freshman’s year. Some groups also organise a freshman sale to help finance the activities of the organisation. A senior student will grant permission to a first year student to bake waffles or to vacuum their ‘kot’.”
Many ways to enjoy the traditional student folklore
To outsiders, the student unions sometimes resemble a closed community. “This may seem so but it is not true in every case”, continued Maxime. “We find that students who follow these traditions are more inclined to take part in major events such as St-V or the liberal student song contest. The same applies to the TDs, the parties, in the BSG room. What is important is that these activities are open to all students, in the same way that job fairs or the tent TDs target a wide range of participants. The number of strictly internal events are extremely rare, and you do not have to be baptised to participate. Some students even choose to be baptised after a couple of years while others let themselves be repeatedly baptised in different student organisations. They do it because it’s fun. We have noticed in recent years a growing interest by international students to our initiation activities, though participation is still limited. The language is a barrier, except for the cantus, is not an issue. Student organisations are just eager to welcome international students and introduce them to their traditions. The range of these organisations is also very diverse. One can join an organisation without being baptised or follow typical student folklore, or just opt for an organisation with a special interest like the gaming organisation Swamp or special beer promotors Beer Culture. “
In all cases campus life is never boring and there are thousands of ways to experience the Belgian student tradition. The bottom line is ‘free choice’. You can participate or not, but you are welcome anyway. As for the baptisms: they aim to create a genuine group feeling and are organised with a sense of commitment and responsibility.
We would like to thank Maxime from the VUB Folklore Academy for his open testimonial about the myths of the traditional student folklore at VUB.