Christmas Traditions

Tearing of the Squares

Tearing of the Squares counts down the days to winter vacation. Typically, every suite decorates a sheet of paper with the number of one of the days. These are hung in the hall parlor, where students gather each evening to sing carols (often with Cotteyized lyrics) and tear one of the squares. Usually the seniors of one suite would tear that day's square.1 Tearing of the Squares may have evolved out of an older tradition of counting down the days till vacation during dinner.2

Tearing of the Squares in Robbie Hall, 1964
"The tearing of the square ceremony which marks the end of one more day before Christmas vacation is performed by Betty Halvorsen and Lynn Dupree in Robbie," 1964.4
Tearing of the Squares, 1965
"Many ages ago, the Great White Mother, seated on our left, made this proclamation: May the bird of Paradise see that your squares tear evenly!" P.E.O. Hall, 1965.5
Tearing of the Squares, 1976
"Louise Foster and Nancy Dodd tearing the square," 1976.1


Susprise began as a holiday surprise for Cottey freshmen, when the seniors would stay up late to decorate the hall parlor and Christmas tree. Often the décor would include hundreds of snowflakes hung from the ceiling, hand-made by the Rec Rats. Early the next morning, the seniors would rouse their freshmen from their beds, blindfold them, and lead them to the parlor. When the blindfolds were removed, the freshmen beheld a winter wonderland of glittering trees, bright baubles, and snow.

This was traditionally the time when each senior spuh (Secret Penpals U Have) would reveal herself to her freshman and give her a present. (Not all spuhs chose to reveal themselves, however.) In some years, the seniors would take an item from their spuh in advance to place next to her present as a kind of gift tag. Freshmen also used to receive a charm for the occasion, as they did for other traditions throughout the year.

After the surprise and reveal, the freshmen learned all the Cotteyized Christmas carols ― classic yuletide songs with rewritten lyrics. Students gathered in the dorm parlors each evening thereafter to sing the Cottey carols and tear that day's square.

Decorating Christmas trees as a surprise to the freshmen occurred well before the first Susprise. When Cottey students stayed at the school for Christmas in the 1890s, the teachers decorated the tree and parlors on Christmas Eve. Often they designed elaborate extras like a forest scene or Ferris wheel full of gifts.3 On the night of Hanging of the Greens in 1937, seniors stayed up late to secretly decorate the tree in Main Hall:

'Twas the night after this
And all through the dorm
The juniors began wondering
If there were a storm.

The rustle of robes, clatter of heels, and faint whispers were heard but no junior dared stir for fear she’d be taken on another all-night tour from cellar to dome. The next morning all suspicions turned to shame when the glistening Christmas tree was seen in the main hall. All this preparation called for the nightly repetition in the dining room of "8, 7, 6, 5, 4, more days till vacation,―"

By the 2000s, Susprise typically consisted of seniors decorating the hall tree and placing a gift for her spuh beneath it. There is no more pulling freshmen from their beds or blindfolding them, essentially to rid the tradition of anything that could be misconstrued as 'hazing.'

"Gathering in the parlor after a serenade, the Reeves seniors decorated the Christmas tree which greeted juniors when they awakened," 1964.4
Susprise in Reeves, 1975
Reeves seniors decorated the parlor for Susprise, 1975.6
Susprise in Robertson Hall, 1976
Susprise in Robbie Hall, 1976.1
  Susprise in Reeves Hall, 1976
Susprise in Reeves Hall, 1976.1

Works Cited:

  1. Sphinx, The. Yearbook. Nevada, MO: Cottey College, 1977. Print.
  2. Sphinx, The. Yearbook. Nevada, MO: Cottey College, 1938. Print.
  3. "Christmas at Cottey." The P.E.O. Record Dec. 1976: 12-14. Print.
  4. Sphinx, The. Yearbook. Nevada, MO: Cottey College, 1965. Print.
  5. Sphinx, The. Yearbook. Nevada, MO: Cottey College, 1966. Print.
  6. Sphinx, The. Yearbook. Nevada, MO: Cottey College, 1975. Print.
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