Highlights of the Oxmas Season
Apologies for being out of touch, friends. Things have been busy as the term came to an end. Now Oxford is filled with young interviewees seeking admission to the University, and I am leaving to explore France and other parts of the UK.
As a side note, admission to Oxford basically comes down to two interviews with professors. The interviews consist of discipline-specific knowledge quizzes and logic puzzles. For example, a candidate for the medicine program might be asked, “How would you measure the amount of blood that is pumped through the body in one minute (without harming your subject)?” Think on that one. I needed several clues.
Since Christmas falls during the school holiday, Oxford celebrates a month early. Even before the much anticipated day of November 25th, known as “Oxmas,” there are parades in the park, secret santas, carolers on corners, and yes, fake snow. One striking event is “Ashmolean Live Friday,” where twenty-odd folk bands and dance groups set up shop in the Ashmolean Museum.
Even without the live entertainment, the Ashmolean is a highlight for visitors to Oxford because of its collection of ancient objects. On a previous visit, my friend who studies Egypt and Mesopotamia stood before a sandy plate, murmuring “This is it. This is the Tablet of Kings.” That level of awe is how you should imagine the whole museum. When I enter on Oxmas-eve for “Live Friday,” the Greek sculptures and Chinese tea sets are obscured by crowds of children craning to watch songs by a long-haired banjo duo. To another side, a pirate chases a knight around the room and then disappears through some curtains. “He’s behind you!” yell thirty children in their cute accents. Joining in the shouting, I’m delighted at the violation of the normally overpowering Oxford Quiet Rule.
A few days later, my mom comes to visit and joins me for a formal dinner in my college’s dining hall. The hall has four long tables where everyone sits together, illuminated by lamps and the glow of a Christmas tree at one side. We sit with a group of freshers who chatter excitedly about the impending end of term, and the rather less exciting “collections” (exams) that happen at the end of the break. Eventually the professors enter the Hall and everyone–as per Oxford tradition–jump to our feet and wait for the Master of the college to deliver a blessing in Latin before we eat. Unfortunately, my mom is unaware of the Jumping Up Rule and gets up so fast that her chair smacks onto the ground. A few students chuckle, but as compensation for the embarrassment my mom is served a helping of a classic food: Mysterious Ingredients in the form of a Pie. The English have realized to their great benefit that pie need not be only for dessert.
The next morning we set out to explore Oxford’s neighborhoods. The houses are red brick, polite in ordered rows, guarded by pigeons. We follow a faint trail through a community garden, between barren trees, and discover a path that parallels a canal. The path is called the Thames Path and you can walk along it all the way to the river’s mighty crux in London, but here the river is more of a sweet stream. The canal takes us away from the city center until we’re out of Oxford and into the meadow that surrounds it. There are cows and sheep grazing. Leaves crunch under our shoes. (It’s even sunny!) We realize that the situation demands a pub lunch, so we oblige at the first place we come across. It’s called The Perch, and is just next to The Church, an actual ancient church with a well that was used hundreds of years ago, and gravestones green with moss.
Inside, the pub is classy wine bar mixed with rustic steakhouse. There are wreaths hung about and a fire in the hearth, and smooth wooden tables and chairs. At the counter, a waitress offers us a choice of snacks: pork pie or scotch egg? Do you know what a scotch egg is? I didn’t, but ordered it anyways. Turns out that it’s a boiled egg wrapped in pork and then breaded on top of that. Plus somewhere in there is a weird clear jelly about which I don’t ask the details. We lick our fingers and order a cider before returning to the nose-numbing cold.
A few days later I go with my mom to London, from where she continues her trip. On the bus ride back to Oxford I sit next to a woman eagerly engaged in the crossword. Soon we become a team, solving clues one after another and even, in those rare and special moments, simultaneously. Rain pounds on the windows, but we are focused. Thirty minutes later every square is filled and we lean back on our seats, satisfied. Just before debarking the woman turns to me and says, “In ten years of making this trip every day, that was the first time someone ever did the crossword with me.” Later as I walk back to college in the rain, I smile about that. It feels like the spirit of Oxmas.