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A Guide to Oxford's Carnations

By Olivia McQuaid

Visit Oxford during any time of year, but particularly Trinity Term, and you’ll likely see a flock of students heading down the High Street towards the Examination Schools, clad in gowns and black and white from head to toe, minus a little splash of floral colour pinned to their chests. But what do the carnations mean? What do they represent?

I hate to say, but there is no one specific answer (like most Oxford traditions!)

When I first came to Oxford, with absolutely no knowledge of its quirks and weird traditions, I found the carnation thing really odd - why do we do something with absolutely no concrete reason behind it? However, after doing my first set of exams (called prelims), I finally realised the appeal of the carnation.

The tradition is to have 3 carnations in different colours: one white, one pink, one red. You wear the white for the first exam, red for the final one, and pink for all the exams in between. Traditionally, your college parents (mentors from the year above you, allocated to you in freshers’ week) buy them for you, but some colleges supply them for students out of their own budget. Florists around the city sell them to you in little bundles quite cheaply, and they are a nice gift to get someone who is preparing for their exams!

There’s many theories about why this started but my personal favourite, and one which seems a bit morbid given that it is represented in pretty flowers pinned to your lapel, is that they represent the knowledge bleeding out of you as your exam season goes on. White, then pink, then eventually stained red with the blood of your knowledge! I can’t actually remember who told me this, but it has stuck with me ever since I heard it as a fresher. This seems like a bit of horror story, but I promise it is actually a nice thing to see - there’s something comforting about being able to stand in unity with others in the exam hall, wearing something which works almost like a countdown to freedom. Plus, there is no better feeling than pinning that red carnation on and knowing that there is only another 3 hours standing between you and post-exam celebration.

So, when you are next strolling down Oxford’s High Street and see someone brandishing their white carnation, give them a smile of reassurance, they’re about to ‘bleed out’ their knowledge!


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