Oxford is a city that lives and breathes tradition. This is especially true on Ascension Day, otherwise known as Holy Thursday, celebrated 39 days after Easter, and commemorates the Christian belief of the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven.
Whilst most people are unaware that Ascension Day has already passed them (this year on Thursday 10th May 2018), here in Oxford at least three rituals mark the occasion. However, the traditions themselves are not of a religious nature, thereby welcoming people from all backgrounds to partake in the festivities.
Beating the bounds
Every year, tourists are left bemused by the crowds of parishioners marching through the city centre, each armed with long willow sticks, used to hit the boundary stones that once marked out the ancient parish boundaries of both St Mary the Virgin University Church, and St Michael at the North Gate. The earliest mention of the tradition dates back to 1428, whereby the lack of maps led to parish boundaries needing to be physically marked out. This was especially important given the fact that each parish was responsible for the care of the needy living within it, allowing those in need to know exactly which parish to go to for help.
As if the ritual couldn’t get any stranger, the beating is also accompanied by the shouting of “Mark, Mark, Mark!” and takes place across the city, from inside the colleges, to the shops on Cornmarket Street!
Penny-throwing at Lincoln college
For Lincoln College, Ascension Day involves primary school children collecting pennies on the main quad, which were thrown from the tower above. In its present form, the ritual is far more safety conscious than it was in times gone by, since coins were once red hot, in order to warn children of the perils of greed.
Unlocking the door between Lincoln and Brasenose college
There’s a strong tradition of rivalries between colleges at Oxford, namely those located directly next to each other, such as Balliol-Trinity. However, the origin of the Lincoln-Brasenose rivalry is particularly interesting; apparently, many centuries ago, riots between the “Town and Gown” (locals and members of the university) culminated in two students being chased down – one from each of Lincoln and Brasenose. However, whilst Lincoln opened its door to allow the Lincoln student in, the Brasenose student was shunned away, leading to his death following an attack from the angry mob.
Such an occurrence gave rise to the long-standing tradition that takes place on Ascension Day, in which a door connecting the two colleges is unlocked and opened for a few minutes- the only time it’s opened each year. Furthermore, Lincoln serves free drinks to Brasenose as a means of apology for their past actions. That being said, Lincoln traditionally flavours their beer with ivy to prevent Brasenose students from drinking too much of it.
All in all, Ascension Day is one of the most unique celebrations in both the Oxford calendar and Christian calendar. Although the rituals are less well known than popular traditions such as May Morning or Matriculation, the next time you see a crowd of people walking through Boots with sticks in the air, you will at least have some form of idea as to what’s going on!