In my chapter, we had a "senior wills" ceremony. Senior members would stand before the members and give away their shirts, hats, whatever, to younger chapter members. At the end of the ceremony, the graduating senior's family tree would gift him a black cotton football jersey with a nickname on the back. If you reflect on it, it is a cute gesture (and I'm sticking with "cute"). Members attach meaning to items they will down to others, often saving their green cotton football jerseys, an ultimate prize, for their "little brother(s)" or other members they grew close to over the years.
But there's an even more sappy meaning to it. When one joins the chapter, their big brother agrees to provide them with their first, green cotton football jersey after formal initiation into the fraternity. Their first and official nickname in the chapter is stitched onto the back of this jersey. Some are based on inside jokes and some had deeper or serious meanings, and they didn't matter much, as one could buy an infinite number of green jerseys, white jerseys, yellow jerseys, or whatever color other than black. Black was the color you only wear once you graduated or left school.
So, when the members of one's "family tree," but most often their "little brother(s)," gift the graduating member a black jersey with a nickname, they return the nickname favor with one that a member earned over 3-5 years in the chapter. Again, some are trollish inside jokes and some have deeper or serious meanings, but they all make a little more sense (mine was a combination of adorable and trollish offensive). All in all, it's a sweet full-circle moment.
That is effectively a fraternity ritual ceremony. It is not the only senior-willing ceremony in the world and fraternities are not the only organizations with senior-willing ceremonies. But it was a ceremony that the members of my and other chapters take part in every year. It is often in a public venue and serves as a sweet sendoff to those moving on from their undergraduate life. Telling you all of this reveals nothing secret about my fraternity, but it may help to better understand the type of relationship one builds in a fraternity.
"We live in a world where we don't really keep secrets, and people join these clubs and are told to keep things a secret, and they do!"
In my interview with author Jana Mathews (quoted above), she mentioned the ritual as an area of interest for her next project. Fraternity rituals are surprisingly well-kept secrets. Even in cases where a fraternity's ritual may have leaked, it's never a common reference in something like a news article or even among the Abolish Greek LIfe movement. Modern fraternity rituals give little reason to attack fraternities.
There are a couple of reasons why:
Rituals are living documents and are continuously adjusted for a variety of reasons, but mostly health-and-safety purposes. I've attended several fraternity conventions where changes to a ritual were up for a vote. Most modern rituals have been scrubbed of obviously controversial material (hazing, discriminatory policy, etc.)
As previously mentioned, they are still well-kept secrets and initiates generally respect the secrecy of others' rituals.
The excellent secret-keeping creates an air of mystery around fraternity rituals. Many people don't like fraternities. To such people, the mystery is a cause for mistrust. If a ritual is the defining characteristic of a fraternity organization, then how can we generate a better understanding of that if it's shrouded in secrecy? How can we communicate the respective meanings of fraternity rituals without giving away the secrets?
Keeping nonsecrets secret because everything is a secret even if it is not a secret.
Fraternities often conduct business at local and inter/national levels during "ritual meetings." This ultimately makes the business of a fraternity about as secret as the ritual. The lack of conversation surrounding ritual and fraternity business means most members don't understand the ritual or fraternity business. For example, students often have the impression that a ritual is unchanging, or that a particular tradition has been in place since the beginning of time. But many fraternities update their ritual on a regular basis, sometimes every few years. Members are not taught to pay attention to what changes in their ritual, so much so that they don't know that their copy might be outdated.
Furthermore, should your fraternity's symbols mean the same thing today as they did when it was founded many decades ago? Is that something that should be changed or openly re-interpreted? Is that kind of conversation possible? Should ritual be as open for discussion, analysis, and debate as hazing or substance use within our respective fraternities? Why or why not? Think about how easy it is to agree to change a ritual because a fraternity is threatened with a lawsuit and how difficult it might be to know how members feel about the content of their ritual.
Conversations among brothers and friends
Ritual is a terrific tool to engage in the oldest traditions of fraternity membership: camaraderie, discussion, and enlightenment. Fraternity programs are rarely built off of the fraternity's ritual; that's a shame, but understandable. It's risky to publish information about the organization's secrets and many fraternity education staff are uninitiated professionals. That said, ritual sessions appear to be a fan favorite where they appear, no matter the organization, and can often generate conversation and buzz. So take some time after public and secret ritual ceremonies - and particularly after initiation - to talk about the experience. Make it optional if you'd like, but your members will ultimately appreciate it.
How?: Review the meanings of the symbols and secrets of your organization, and try to tie them back to its founding. "Why did your founding members choose those things? How do you connect with those things? What did not speak to you?" You might find that members don't remember much from the ceremony, and a quick review will do wonders to make sure the meaning of the ritual sets in.
Alumni can play an important role here. I and other alumni in my fraternity have organized workshops and lectures about the fraternity's ritual with individual chapters or at national programs. Aside from being present during appropriate ceremonies, alumni can take part in or lead a discussion. They can also draw connections between the ritual and their professional or personal life as an experienced human adult. Try to make note of where you see or hear words that are important in your ritual (on a podcast, a billboard, etc.), and let some of your members know. The more it becomes a conversation, the more it will influence your thoughts and habits.
Getting comfortable opening up with other fraternities and the general public
The symbols, colors, and stories chosen by your fraternity members over the years are not exclusive to your fraternity. Your fellow members chose those things because they had meaning. For example, a majority of inter/national fraternities list some kind of rose, carnation, or lily as their "official flower." These three flowers were important symbols in ancient times and in the societies - including Christianity and Judaism - that influenced American college fraternities.
Here's a test: Jot down the symbols of your fraternity, including its colors and the words/values it emphasizes in its ritual. Write down what your ritual says these words and symbols represent. Then look the symbols up online. What do they mean in other societies or other parties of the world? Are those descriptions the same or similar to those in your fraternity ritual? The fact that our organizations pulled from existing meanings for symbols, stories, and ceremonies can serve to generate understanding with the outside world.
Are you revealing a secret to say that a yellow rose means the same thing to your fraternity as it means to the general public? I say "No." So, here we can define the space for interfraternal conversations about ritual. . . if desired.
My favorite thing about visiting fraternity chapters was learning about their local rituals and traditions. A chapter at Cal Poly maintained their nicknames well after graduation and in all fraternity correspondence with one another. The Cleveland State chapter would finish their chapter meeting, cross the street to a pavilion, join arms, and sing the fraternity song. Then they'd start playfully kicking each other. I don't know how it started or why, but I was kicking college kids for a few minutes in the evening in the middle of Cleveland and it was fun! Students would gather in their dormitory windows; for many, it was their regular Sunday evening entertainment.
Keeping secrets because secrets can be fun and have meaning
Transparency is an essential and honorable trait in the information era. We need to be able to better connect members with the lessons of a fraternity's ritual if the end goal is for those members to live by those lessons. Many would agree that the world would be a better place if that were the case. But the secrecy of so many nonsecrets - such as common meanings for symbols or stories - makes it difficult to know what else is discussable as a group or in public.
The idea to be more open about rituals, or to go fully public with a ritual, is not new. Delta Upsilon's public ritual is attached to this article. 95% of you won't read it, because most people don't actually care about other fraternity rituals. Still, ritual is an under-utilized tool when it comes to brotherhood and personal development. A fraternity's symbols and ceremonies can serve as ways to get members to talk about important topics and to connect with other organizations or the public.
To do that, members need to make the distinction between "revealing secrets" and "talking openly about something we think is important."
If you'd like to write something about your fraternity's nonsecret symbols, ceremonies, or material (as I did for my fraternity's Preamble), reach out on Twitter or the Fraternity Man Contact Form.
Fraternity Man is an ad-free and independent publication.
Help keep it going and growing by contributing as little as $2. (Links below will take you to a secure payment portal via Stripe)
A free way to support: Subscribe to the Fraternity Man newsletter for [very occasional] updates and giveaways.