Winter Carnival began in 1919 as a second semester, early February athletic celebration of the season. Faculty competed against students in an array of races at Congress Park: skiing, snow shoeing, three-legged run, relay and an obstacle race. The event quickly grew to incorporate costumed theatrical activities with a winter theme including skits, dancing, singing, figure skating demonstrations and the annual faculty play along with food vendors. February 1923’s finale featured the entire winter carnival chorus singing “Snowballs” and, “in the final chorus, snow balls were thrown to the audience and each spectator was very surprised to find that the imitation cotton snow balls contained a candy kiss.”
The athletic offerings also grew to incorporate hockey, downhill skiing events, speed skating and other sports. Non-competitive group skating, skiing and tobaganning were hugely popular for all students. As Saratoga had far less cars at the time, students and visitors happily skied endlessly all over town and into the surrounding woods that ringed the town during the weekend. Skidmore equestrians took their horses skijoring through town and trails as well.
By 1928, a Winter Carnival Queen was being selected, and this quickly but briefly morphed into a double prize for the Royal Monarchs where both Queen and King were female. Prizes were awarded at the athletic events and at interclass competitions for the best stunts, some of which were surprisingly inventive. In 1930, for example, the sophomore class “presented a troup of trained cats and dogs which were very clever.” A formal dance became part of the carnival and in later years, became the major focus of the weekend.
Winter Carnival was wildly successful and soon grew to become a three day destination event. Colleges such as Dartmouth, Princeton, Cornell, Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Barnard, University of Rochester, RPI, Colgate, Syracuse and more sent both male and female athletes to compete in the now serious athletic events. Male dates from these colleges were also drawn to town for the fun. By the late 1930’s, the crowned Queen was female and the King was male. Local restaurants and inns were caught up in the Winter Carnival fever and wooed students and their dates in for special romantic fireside dinners and hearty breakfasts throughout the three day festival. Winter Festival had become not only the social highlight of Skidmore’s academic year but one of the most important annual events in Saratoga and a weekend many other colleges’ students looked forward to all year.
The ice sculpture contest, which developed in the 1920’s, pitted classes and sometimes dorms against each other and remains one of the most memorable features of the Winter Carnival to alumni and local townspeople alike. Winners received the coveted Snow-Girl trophy, created by Skidmore art professor Robert Davidson , for a year. As befitting a school with a heavy arts influence, many of the sculptures were artistically impressive, occasionally sexually suggestive and – in later years – some paid a nod to contemporary drug culture.
Winter Carnival thrived and enjoyed a lengthy hey dey all the way through the 1950’s. But many changes arrived beginning in the middle of the 1960’s that spelled the end of Winter Carnival as a major northeastern college festival. Saratoga itself was more built up and with more cars on the scene, widespread casual skiing around town became a thing of the past along with many of the wooded trails that had bordered the town. As college athletics grew more specialized and competitive, Skidmore’s physical facilities for winter athletic competition could not keep up. And finally, cultural changes arriving with 1960’s youth culture and Skidmore going coed evaporated student interest in formal college dances and Winter Carnival as a highlight of the student dating calendar. Although variations of Winter Carnival have continued at Skidmore in various minor iterations on and off since then, the celebrated Winter Carnival of the first half of the twentieth century was no more.