Carola Ekrem. Helsinki

The decline in rites and festival traditions in the 60s and 70s has now been followed by increased readiness and capacity for festival behaviour. Nowadays festivity is often associated with our nearest environment, our family and everyday life (Frykman 1991; Frykman 1992, 66-67; Bringeus 1987, 286). We long for a beautiful day-to-day reality. Young people are conservative in matters of festival traditions. They find no reason to break a nice tradition which gives life a special touch. Students at school also grasp every occasion of joy and festivity (Ekrem 1989).

The official festival term at school is fixed and limited by annual festivals and breaking-up days. Life at school is also marked by other important regular events, unofficial feasts. These feasts are arranged by the students themselves when the student body members change and their internal hierarchy varies, the events marking steps, or rather gates, between various school levels.

Feasts meet the need for marking boundaries (Gustavsson 1979,15). Attention is increasingly attached to the informal festival aspect at school, the transition from one stage to another. Life at school is divided by borders, introduction and closing celebrations, admission and break-up celebrations, ceremonial balls and burlesque carnivals.

The unofficial celebrations may take place within a traditional and repeated framework. In contrast, the implications of some celebrations seem to vary both diachronically and synchronically.


When a new group of students is admitted into the school community, the upper levels in many Swedish-speaking comprehensive schools and secondary schools in Finland arrange "admission ceremonies" for testing and introducing newcomers, called yellow-beaks, into their community. The word yellow-beak has old traditions in Europe's university life (cf. German Geldschnabel and French bec jaune). At the beginning of the autumn term a party evening is arranged, where the yellow-beaks are picked out, separately or in groups, to be tested by various games and tasks. The older students, forming the audience at the events, have the right to mock and freely judge the new students in the course of the ceremonies. With the test passed, the freshly admitted students take part in the remaining program, often a disco evening.

On the admission day, the yellow-beaks must be in disguise from the moment they leave home, thus also manifesting their status to the environment. The disguise is of a classical, symbolic inversion type (Turner 1978, 278). Thus, for instance, the student has to manifest his odd situation by wearing only one shoe or boot, or by wrapping himself into toilet paper or by wearing a nightgown, or by carrying his schoolbooks in a bucket.

The phenomenon of yellow-beak admission ceremony dates from medieval university life and craftsmanship. The admission test for new students and apprentices involved a period over which the newcomers admitted their total ignorance and were subject to arbitrary jesting and torture by their seniors, after which they were accepted as worthy members of the community (Berg 1930; von Bonsdorff 1904; Klinge 1988; Nilsson 1944; Stjemqvist 1932; Hilpinen 1985; Schopp 1980).

Gösta Berg describes the ceremonies at the university of Uppsala in the 17th century as follows:

The ceremonies featured in a rough, concrete form the mental state in which the newly arrived scholar was considered to be in; he was equipped with corns on his forehead and boar tusks in his mouth, was coloured black in his face, upon which he and his peers were driven into the ballroom "as a herd of oxen or donkeys". In front of the gathered audience of senior students, the purification ceremony began: the student was shaken with a long pair of tongs until the tusks fell off, he had to stretch out on the floor and was trimmed as a piece of timber, and his face was rubbed with a coarse dishcloth. Meanwhile, the tormentors described in. detail how the fresh student's mental capacities were to be purified and enhanced accordingly under the protection of the academy (Berg 1936, 208).

The ceremonies are referred to in the University annals as "old customs" spread in the international university and artisan community in Europe. Similar ceremonies have existed, and still do, in the military community and university colleges of today (Klinge 1988, 507; Leimu 1985; Rehnberg 1967; Weckström 1991). Analogous ceremonies were also accepted in secondary schools. In the same way as at universities, the newcomers were subjected to the brutal educational measures of their seniors (Hilpinen 1985; Laure'n 1884; Nordlund 1974; Nyberg 1991; Wennhall 1994, 38). Today yellow-beak admission ceremonies are celebrated in schools in accordance with conventional reproduction rules (Honko 1981, 51). Historically speaking, reproduction in connection with yellow-beak admission ceremonies thus reaches far back.

The Finland-Swedish schools mark two boundaries: admission ceremonies to the upper level of comprehensive school after six years on the lower level, and admission ceremonies to secondary school after three years on the upper level of comprehensive school.


I will now proceed to the yellow-beak admission ceremonies at a specific school, the comprehensive school and secondary school of Helsinki (Ekrem 1989; Ekrem 1992; SLS 1533). I have had the occasion to study the feasts at this school, located in the city of Vantaa (next to Helsingfors) over a period of ten years. Regarding the yellow-beak admission ceremonies, I have always had to get the permission of the organisers, the committee of the student body. I have carried out the observations relating to fieldwork hidden backstage. The victims experience the events as humiliating, and for this reason outsiders, especially teachers and adults, are not allowed to take part.

In the Helsinki school the admission ceremonies to the upper level are arranged by the "pal students", a group of students elected by their classmates primarily to prevent bullying at school and to intervene in crises among the students. These "pal students", with emphasis on "pal", organise the party in the form of an admission ceremony. The "pal students" visit the 7th form of the lower level in the spring term, in order to find out whether the future yellow-beaks are shy, or whether they are able to take tough treatment by means of particular games. The results are used in the planning of the admission ceremonies, which, typically enough, are called "games", and are also checked by the teacher member of the student body. Current programs include a "slave market", where the older students may buy a slave of their own from amongst the newcomers, who then have to indulge his owner's every whim in the course of the day.

Interviews with "pal students" reveal the purpose that everybody should have fun. The yellow-beaks should get to know each other and be united in their common ordeal. At the same time, the new students should be introduced to the school. Many upper level students recall this as an important matter. They enjoyed the fact that the following day the older students remembered their performance from the night before. "At that moment I got the feeling of belonging to the new school", is a frequent comment.

The idea is to take the sting out of the bullying that does exist. The students try to give bullying a temporary character as far as possible. The event may be characterised as a welcome party "in the fight against bullying".

At secondary school admission ceremonies are of a rougher kind. Here the teacher body exerts no control. Secondary school students alone have the right to participate in these secret events. Whereas upper level students often are made to perform their admission tests in groups, and are regarded as an age group to be admitted, secondary school ceremonies involve admission of individuals. The ceremonies have a marked sexual character. One could say that each game at the upper level is matched by a rough equivalent at secondary school. If, for instance, upper level students are made to lick off cream from each other's cheeks, secondary school students must do the same, but, undressed and with thighs and tummy as a target area. While upper level yellow-beaks are requested to make speeches, secondary school yellow-beaks must read out a hard pom text, etc.

Another difference is that upper level students wear protective overalls at messy tests where they could get dirty. Students who are being admitted to secondary school may as well be prepared to take a long shower.

Current admission ceremonies are characterised by loud music, Hashing disco lights and a noisy audience. There is a speaker who makes the program proceed. At the admission ceremonies to the upper level a pal student acts as a speaker, thus striking a tone of friendliness. After all, a pal student is a friend who helps the victims. In contrast, the speaker at secondary school ceremonies whips up a frenzy among the audience. He praises good performances, and derides those who fail in their tasks. The secondary school admission measures the individual's sense of humour and self-irony. If you are mature enough to cope with the situation that night, you are ready to be accepted among the secondary school students.


The terms rite and ceremony have often been used fairly uncritically to characterise school feasts (and also other modem festival traditions). The yellow-beak admission ceremonies have the structure of transitional rites (Leach 1976, 77-79). At the separation stage the newcomers are designated, disguised, equipped with signs to illustrate their low status, while waiting for the admission ceremony. The transitional stage, or liminality, as Victor Turner calls this no man's land that has to be crossed on the way to a new status (Turner 1969,95), is included in the admission ceremonies when lawlessness and oppositional behaviour are prevailing. The liminality stage involves stripping someone of his status and submitting him to tests to teach him humility. Those who are to be elevated, must first be placed on a level below the acceptable status (Turner 1969, 169-170). Liminality is opposed both to the previous and to the new status. The ceremonies may be characterised as temporary status degrading (Young 1965, 155). Incorporation takes place the very same evening, when the student, accepted as a full member of the student body, is allowed to take part in the disco night to follow.

Without penetrating the jungle of terminology offered by rite research, one has, however, to mark some boundaries Marking borders between rite and ceremony is a classical problem within sociology and social anthropology (Honko 1975,6). The most straightforward terminological definition of a rite (Permnetieteen terminologia 1984, 49) implies a religious ceremony pertaining to the activities of a minor group and assigning a task to each group member The rite is individual-oriented The word ceremony has a somewhat larger implication, it is often arranged temporarily or just once, in the presence of larger groups of people.

The rite has a more rigid structure, it has been considered a form or a structure in which a number of features or characteristics are more or less mutually fixed Without performance, there is no ritual The sequences of formal acts and expressions that constitute the ritual are not absolutely fixed (Bauman 1992, 249).

The opinions about the use of the word rite with a secular-profane meaning has varied from a generous use of the term also in connection with secular symbolic acts (Frykman 1979) to a stricter terminology definition (Skjelbred 1989, 34-38) In her study on church and civil confirmation in Norway, Ann Helene V Skjelbred has reserved the word rite for acts of communication with holy or supernatural element included in a religious system When speaking about acts focussing on the relationship to the social environment, ntuahsmg social markers would be the correct term Secular utes have also been called ceremonies or customs According to Skjelbred, the term rite de passage can be used as a distinction from rite to denote both church and civil confirmation, given the central role of the social aspect in the term rite de passage (Turner 1978, 276)

Victor Turner also notes a distinction between a "traditional tribal ritual", as he calls it, and "modem genres of leisure enjoyment" (Turner 1978, 286) If the term limmality is used about the latter, one should remember that this is done with a metaphorical meaning, Turner emphasises (Hautala 1961).

Alongside with the outer structure of the yellow-beak admission ceremonies, which corresponds to that of a transitional rite, this custom is, however, characterised by an consistent element of parody, improvisation and disorder Thus, the terms rite and rite de passage sound pompous in this conjunction The admission parties lack the aspect of organisation and seriousness that a classically defined rite is supposed to have. The word ceremony in its wider meaning covers the structure of this custom better. The word "quasi-rite", analogous to the notion "quasi-myth" coined by Jouko Hautalato denote myths in jest, could be adequate in this connection. A rite and a quasi-rite may have similar structure, yet their difference lies in the basic attitude to what is happening. A quasi-rite lacks deep seriousness, its acts are actually parodies of the habits they are copying (Leimu 1985, 50).


Pekka Leimu, who has studied role variations in the army community, uses the concepts initiation and hazing. As Leimu notes, hazing is associated with initiation. The notion of hazing, in the sense we know it today, was used for the first time in 1630. Yet the act of hazing occured at an earlier date. Hazing may or may not result in initiation (Leimu 1985, 51). At universities in the past, hazing would result in initiation.

Institutions at which initiation and hazing occur are characterised by a fairly simple basic role composition, however, the barriers between the basic roles are high, in some communities even insurmountable. Considered from the community's point of view, there is no marked segregation between the groups, nonetheless, there are strong attempts within the lowest basic role group to emphasise segregation by means of hazing (Leimu 1985, 54-55).

According to Pekka Leimu, hazing may continue at school without the victims ever becoming equals of their tormentors. When hazing stops, this is due to the fact that the older students consider it beneath their dignity to continue. The division into forms still allows older students to pick on newly arrived students the following year. Leimu does not find current yellow-beak admissions to involve initiation. Hazing does not end with the admission ceremonies. The ceremonies, borrowed from outside the school and taking place under the supervision of teachers, are without significance - they represent neither initiation nor hazing (SLS 1533 recording 1985: 78, 11).

What then do the customs at the Helsinki comprehensive and secondary school imply? We note that ceremonies may have diff rent meanings on various levels within the same school. Admission ceremonies to the upper grade aim to eliminate hazing and to incorporate the new students in the student body by means of temporary, organised suppression of fellow students. That is to say, to incorporate rather than to initiate. It should be emphasised that no teachers are allowed at the actual admission ceremonies.

At secondary school the situation is different. The students are nearly grown-ups, all of them being familiar with school and unity among the students. Here the ceremonies concern initiation to the group of senior students at school. I quote a girl from the Helsinki school: "There's a big difference between the comprehensive school upper level and secondary school. It is completely different. After the admission you are supposed to feel "you belong to the people upstairs"" (Bringe'us 1979).

Unlike Leimu, I thus argue that admission ceremonies to the comprehensive school upper level represent hazing (by inversion), whereas secondary school ceremonies represent initiation.

After all, one ought to remember that today's yellow-beak admission ceremonies also are parties featuring a program. The program should preferably be a nice show that everybody can enjoy. "Show" and "humour" are key words in this conjunction. The yellow-beaks must prove mature enough to be able to look at themselves with irony. Are the yellow-beak admission ceremonies traumatic feasts? (Honko 1981, 39) The yellow-beaks have no choice. If they refuse to participate, they will be punished or stigmatised over a long period of time. Participation is frightening, but at the same time, the idea of later organising the ceremony for students in the following form is tempting.

The variation of the content of the admission ceremonies to the comprehensive school upper level may hence be regarded as the kind Lauri Honko calls major variation (Honko 1981, 59). A shift of functions is actually being concerned. In this case, minor variation is relatively insignificant. Current yellow-beak admission ceremonies are to a large extent based on old elements, which, however, perform new functions in a reformed school (Myerhoff 1982, 128).

When major variation involves a shift from hazing to a welcome party in the fight against hazing, this is partly due to the fact that the age group involved in the ceremonies today is younger, and partly to the fact that bullying has been acknowledged as one of the serious problems at school.

A rite starts from a cultural problem (pronounced or not), which reaches its solution over a number of reorganising and reinterpreting steps. Barbara Myerhoff has stated that the life of a human being includes several major and minor events, at which traumatic experiences may be transformed into major occasions marking a change, passing over transition rites (Gustavsson 1979).

As a complement to the nowadays classical notions - the feast as a compensation (Bringe'us 1979), and the feast as a trauma - we may observe the feast as a problem-solver in connection with the yellow-beak admission ceremonies: the performance of a quasi-rite aims at solving a problem, i.e. hazing and inequality within school hierarchy.

Archive Material

Svenska litteratursällskapets folkkultursarkiv, Helsingfors (Swedish Literature Society, The Folk Culture Archives). Collection SLS 1533 "Fester, evenemang och skolfester i Helsinge skola och gymnasium" (School Feasts in Helsinki junior and secondary school). Carola and LeifEkrem 1984-1993.


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