Each fall, on Scotland's foggy eastern coast, the hallowed, medieval halls of the University of St. Andrews play host to one of the strangest -- and messiest -- rituals of contemporary European civilization.
"Raisin Weekend," the crazed, carnavalesque kickoff to St. Andrew's academic year, may indeed at one time have had something to do with raisins. These days, though, the focus has drifted away from dried fruit and towards a naughtier combination of objects: alcohol, foam (generally taking the shape of shaving cream), and police reports.
The origins of Raisin Weekend remain shrouded in mystery, an obscurity all too appropriate for a festival whose very tradition is rooted in mocking tradition. For a university sometimes accused of having built a reputation for stuffy poshness -- its most famous recent alumnus is Prince William -- Raisin Weekend promises the ultimate retort, styling itself as a wild, bachannalic rite of passage for baffled first-year students.
The idea is that after two days and two nights of stealing property, swilling alcohol, dressing up in (and intermittently stripping out of) makeshift costumes, pouring beans on the heads of innocent townspeople, and biting the heads off of innocent chickens, students will have no other choice than to grant St. Andrews their lifelong allegience.
At the heart of this initiation process is the "academic family," an organ which, far from serving any scholastic purpose, functions like a cruel caricature of the "buddy systems" favored by less imaginative institutions. Each first-year student assumes for the duration of festivities the title of "academic child." He or she is then joined to both an "academic mother" and an "academic father" chosen from later years. These figures serve as their child's spiritual -- and quite often carnal -- tutors for the rest of the boozy ordeal.
The duties of the academic mother, according to a special Raisin Weekend guide written by the university's student union, begin with throwing her children a "tea party" on Sunday afternoon, with "the tea often being replaced by alcohol." Mothers are instructed to "ply (their) kids with party food, making sure they have eaten something" before everyone moves on to the father's party. Mothers are also required to dress up their children in outrageous costumes and to wrap them in "raisin strings," which are simply threads attached to some chosen object deemed both "fun" and "representative" of the child in question.
Academic fathers are charged with chaperoning their children throughout the night's parties -- a duty that often ends with romantic trysts between father and child if circumstances and sexual preference permit. In return for this "paternal" stewardship, academic children are supposed to bestow gifts upon their fathers. Traditionally, children were supposed to gift their fathers with a pound of raisins, but in recent times a bottle of wine has been the custom.
In gratitude for the gift, fathers award their children with "Raisin Receipts." These are no ordinary records of transaction. Most academic fathers choose to print their receipts -- really just a scribbled latin phrase -- onto large and hulking objects. As the student union guide advises fathers, "the receipt can take any form you choose -- from an abandoned piece of furniture to a stuffed animal." The guide cautions, however, that fathers make sure they don't print their receipts on someone else's property, pointing out that what students reasonably "might view as a prank, the police will view as theft or vandalism."
On Monday, comes the climax. Child and parent alike congregate in the quadrangle of St. Salvator's College where they then participate in the largest out-door shaving cream fight on the planet. Academic children come in costume and must bring their unwieldy "receipts" along with them.
Every year, the university warns students to rein in their antics or face cancellation, and every year, the police records pile up, offering an amusing chronicle of that year's transgressions.
The student union, painfully aware of that their beloved tradition runs the pepetual risk of abolition, pleads with students to behave. Their strategy, oddly enough, is to appeal to the students' sense of posterity: have fun, get pissed, but "please don't be the generation of students who killed Raisin Weekend."