Jingle bells. Tinsel. Mince pies. And choirs. But wait! It’s not the 25th yet, is it? What’s going on? Welcome to Bridgemas, a Cambridge tradition you never knew you needed – until you did.
The halls are decked with boughs of holly, twinkling lights and copious amounts of tinsel. The aroma of warm mince pies and mulled wine fills the air. Listen carefully, and you’re almost certain to hear someone, somewhere, singing Silent Night. Yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Except, we’ve already had one – a uniquely Cambridge Christmas.
‘Bridgemas’, as it is affectionately known, takes place in November, at the very end of the Michaelmas term, so that students can get festive together before going down for the holidays. Carol concerts and Christmas formals are the usual headline events – but everyone finds their own way to celebrate, from dinners with housemates and Secret Santa exchanges to festive movie marathons and Christmas jumpers.
“I loved it,” says former Philosophy student Rachel Mander (Newnham 2015). “It’s different to celebrating in a family context because you make your own traditions together with the people that you know at uni.” For her, that meant opening advent calendars in November and cooking a Christmas feast that incorporated everyone’s different family traditions. “I’d bring cranberry sauce, while someone from Ireland would insist we needed mashed potato,” she says. “It’s a nice way of getting to know more about everyone’s homes, with everyone sharing different sides of themselves, as well as marking the end of that first term before people disappear.”
There is some debate over whether there is an official Bridgemas Day. Some students insist it’s 25 November – others say it’s whenever you decide it is. “There’s some flexibility. You can have your Bridgemas when you want your Bridgemas,” says Mander. In fact, that lack of pressure is one of the best things about it, she says. “In January, people usually ask how your Christmas was, and the expected answer is that it was really nice, which isn’t true for lots of people. But no one is going to ask you how your Bridgemas was; it’s unmoored from any expectation, and that frees you up to just see it as a chance to do something fun as a friendship group. Having a low-key version of Christmas is really nice.”
For some international students, Bridgemas offers a chance to experience a British Christmas for the first time. “I really like Christmas, but I never celebrate it in the UK because I go home to Milan,” says Holly Sheridan (Queens, Second Year), who enjoyed her first Bridgemas last year. “We don’t really have turkey and trimmings, so it was great to have a traditional Christmas here – as if I was in a movie or something.”
However, Bridgemas is one of those strange traditions that everyone accepts but no one is quite sure where it started. “It was already pretty entrenched when I was an undergraduate,” says Alice Oates (Caius 2011), who has been studying for a PhD at Pembroke since 2019. “Obviously the Christmas carol concerts have been going on for the longest, then other traditions have built up around that. The Michaelmas term can feel very long. You get to the end of November, and everyone just feels very tired. Having something that’s light and fun is a nice way to end the term and helps cement some of the friendships you’ve been making. I always think there’s a really warm feeling around Bridgemas.”
Oates was College Recorder at Pembroke for three years from 2016, so knows all about the College’s specific traditions – including the Dean singing the Hippopotamus song at his Christmas party. “I don’t know where that came from, but it happens every year,” says Oates. As does a festive book sculpture made by Second Year engineering students – the ‘Pemgineers’. Past creations have included a fireplace, igloo and Christmas tree. Then there’s the catering department’s famous gingerbread house, which has previously been a painstaking reconstruction of Pembroke College buildings. Although don’t be tempted to taste it – it’s coated in hairspray to preserve it.
This being Cambridge, Bridgemas is embraced in 31 different ways, with every College having its own traditions. At Jesus, it’s traditional for the Head Porter to lead the carol singing after the Christmas formal dinner. Once he has burst into the opening bars of Jingle Bells, it’s the cue for everyone else to join in. And unique to Jesus is the College’s Music Society performance of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, narrated by one of the College Fellows, Dr Anthony Bowen, a former University Orator. “It’s an absolute highlight of the year,” says Olly Doggett (Jesus, Second Year). “Walking in the Air is always sung by a member of the choir and it’s a beautiful, feel-good moment which is unique to Bridgemas celebrations at Jesus. It’s a real bonding moment.”
And while there are plenty of opportunities to embrace age-old traditions at Bridgemas, it’s also a chance to make new ones – and for students to share parts of their own culture. You could experience a Bollywood Bridgemas, with a party hosted by the India Society, or enjoy one of the hundreds of fresh waffles served up at the Belgian Society’s Wafflemas event.
“I do think Bridgemas is ingrained in the psyche at Cambridge, but people experience it differently,” says medical student Rohan Yesudian (Robinson, Fourth Year), who made a YouTube vlog about his last Bridgemas. “My experience is quite heavily influenced by belonging to the Christian Union, who run the carol service at the University’s Great St Mary’s Church. We get hundreds of students coming to that over two sittings, and it’s quite an operation providing mince pies and hot chocolate for everyone.” For Yesudian, the early celebrations offer a chance to connect with others over what Christmas means to him as a Christian. “I’m glad that Bridgemas is a thing because it allows me to share my enthusiasm over Christmas and talk about why it’s important to me personally,” he says.
Of course, Christmas isn’t always a time for celebration. The Cambridge branch of Student Minds – the UK’s student mental health charity – knows that it can be a difficult period for some, and uses Bridgemas to foster a sense of community and remind students that they’re not alone. “We have always had informal socials organised around that time of year so that those who wish to have company always do,” says Sharliny Ratnasingam (Fitzwilliam, Second Year), Vice President of Student Minds.
They’ve previously hidden presents around the Colleges for people to find, delivered 20,000 Happy Bridgemas cards to undergraduates and held arts and crafts sessions for students to bond and make gifts for others. “We believe that people feel their best when being in service to others and so we also provide an opportunity for members to be involved in a charitable cause during the festive period,” says Ratnasingam.
The pandemic inevitably put a dampener on some Bridgemas traditions, but everyone hopes things will be back to full festivities this year. “You kind of worry a bit that the fun, silly traditions that students have might get lost because too many undergrads have not really experienced them in Cambridge before,” says Oates. “But I’m sure Bridgemas will persist, even if it has a slightly different form than it did before.”
For those no longer at Cambridge, Bridgemas remains one of those strange quirks of University life that continues to be fondly remembered. “I do miss it,” says Mander. “I miss the slightly ridiculous proportions of it. It felt like I had two Christmases every year.”
Can you help CAM discover the origins of Bridgemas? Our Editor confirms that it was unheard of in 1998 at Caius. But is it 10 years old, or 20? Get in touch with your Bridgemas stories and become part of its official history: firstname.lastname@example.org