📚 Story of the Week #43
'I've been told to tell you that you need to check your pidge'. She buzzed with mulled wine and held my gaze, seeing if her message had made it through the Christmas jingles playing in the Old Kitchen Bar. It hadn't, so she urged me with her eyebrows, lifting them in the expecting way that says,' As soon as possible, please.'
Let's get the obvious out of the way first. What's a pidge? You wouldn't be far off in thinking it was my pet pigeon, as that was the inspiration behind the word. Every place has its code words, and pidge was one of the many pieces of vocabulary you have to pick up as a student at Oxford. It's an unimaginative contraction of pigeonhole, the humble cube of space assigned to every student to receive their post. The name came about because of their resemblance to pigeon cotes, the tiny homes that pigeons lived in during medieval times when they were raised for their meat. If that disturbs you, please take comfort in the word 'cote', which has its roots in the word 'cottage'. As with everyone who lives in a cottage, I'm sure these pigeons led cosy and comfortable lives, cooing by the fireplace, never conscious that their destinies danced around the dinner plate of some peasant.
Words are fun like that. They bind us to history. Hundreds of years ago, your pidge was your connection to the outside world. Fast forward to the present day, and these communication hubs have been usurped by email inboxes and demoted to receiving flyers, the occasional letter and, for those feeling lonely, a steady stream of Amazon packages containing the flurry of inexpensive trinkets you purchased to avoid the stinging disappointment of checking the mailroom only to find it empty (again). Fortunately, any inkling I had to start experimenting with online retail therapy on that frosty November evening back in 2011 had evaporated because, for some reason, I had mail.
Like all first-year students, I was keen to find my feet in this foreign land and start living like a local. I think that's why so many of us sought refuge in the university's customs and rituals. They acted like a salve, insulating us from the creep of imposter syndrome and permitting us to leave behind the boxes of our childhood. The more traditions we collected, the more we felt like we belonged. Looking back, I may have been too enthusiastic as I lost my voice within the first week from talking too much.
While I waited for my throat to recover, I doubled down on using my ears and heard many legends on the grapevine. There was one story about a group of students who raised pet chickens, hiding them in the roof cavity. It was the perfect scheme until one too many stray feathers left the Dean suspicious that something was afoot. While this gave us a cluck and a chuckle, the part of the university's student history that caught my imagination was Oxmas.
With Oxford terms being so short, students break up in the first week of December. Not wanting to miss the festive season, the 25th November has, in recent memory, been informally marked as Oxmas: Oxford Christmas. Usually, students don't do much to commemorate the date, but rumour had it that last year a small group of friends living in the same hallway had come together to cook a meal for each other in the communal kitchen. Getting the organiser's name, I dropped her the shy but eager sort of message that a first-year student would send to a second-year. She gave her blessing, and that's when I got to work.
As first-years, most of us lived in student halls above a Sainsbury's just over Magdalen Bridge. We occupied five floors, each equipped with a kitchen, a corridor of friends, and enough people sold on the idea of making this Oxmas different. With those ingredients, every floor came together to peel vegetables, create playlists, share secret Yorkshire pudding recipes and decorate the beige corridors with tinsel and fairy lights. The only thing missing was presents, which is why I needed someone who could code.
I'd never organised a Secret Santa before, but I figured I could pull the names out of a hat for the few dozen people interested. The day after sending out the invite, I realised I would need a bigger hat, as the few dozen people I expected to opt-in had exploded into a keen bunch of 300 students across every year group. That's where the joys of cross-pollinating minds came in handy, as I found a bigger hat in the form of a first-year computer scientist. With some scripting, they'd paired everyone, emailed them and kept everything a secret — even from us organisers. That's when the friendly social media stalking began.
Walking to my pidge, hands buried deep in the pockets of my coat, I wondered who'd been stalking me. I didn't feel the creep of an unwanted presence on my social feed, so I figured my gift-giver was either a master of stealth or had opted to grab something generic from the supermarket. Returning to my room with the gift, I felt incredibly seen. It's a terribly hard thing to get someone a gift. To know what will resonate and make them feel noticed. To me, the best gifts are the ones that you would never give to yourself but would love to receive. The little hopes in your heart that you aren't sure how to express, but someone interprets, losing nothing in translation.
'Freshly made. I've heard they're great. Maybe we should go sometime – Your Secret Santa.'
I put down the note and pulled out a small platter of sushi from the family-run Japanese restaurant hidden down one of the side streets of Oxford. I poured my soya sauce and mixed in the wasabi; the urgency of the young lady's eyebrows made sense now. My Secret Santa had waited by the restaurant to collect the gift and asked a friend to let them know when I had returned to college, so they could post the present and have someone tip me off before it went bad.
A decade later, I'm still unsure who got me the gift. They never came forward, which puzzles me given their message, though perhaps they wanted to use the mystery to make the gesture more special.
With the pandemic having broken the tradition in 2020, my friends and I corrected things this year with our 10th anniversary Oxmas. We made a feast, shared stories, played board games, pulled crackers, hugged friends who had returned from further studies in Zürich and remembered friends in Tallinn and Taiwan who couldn't make it. After a few glasses of liquid confidence, some of us even danced a little and discovered a hidden talent for charades.
At a London event for alumni, I chatted to a group of recent graduates. We shared stories. They told me of how they had balanced being finalists with the lockdown. I told them about the chickens living in the attic. They mentioned the canteen being closed to help maintain social distancing and how they had heard on the grapevine that years ago some students had banded together to sit in the hallway, chat and share food from a communal pot. After a timely sale on an induction hob from Amazon, they'd ran with the idea and used the force that was keeping them apart as an excuse to get together.
Traditions live and die with us. We just have to decide if we're willing to put in the effort.
Jamie | @JamoeMills
From a chilly December evening in London ☁️
If I could hijack your Christmas playlist, I'd add White Winter Hymnal by Fleet Foxes. It feels like floating and never fails to take me back to the first winter I spent at university.