Candle LightingsBy Christie Wenke
Ceremonies conducted by sorority women on campus to celebrate the engagement of one of the women in the group. During candle lighting festivities sorority women generally form a circle in the amphitheatre, take each other's hands, and sing as they pass a single candle around the circle. The candle is passed around the circle multiple times. If the candle makes it around the circle for a fourth time, excitement fills the air and everyone knows that one of their sisters is engaged, but who? The reveal happens as the newly engaged sister blows out the candle! After a few moments of cheering and sometimes perhaps even the shedding of a nostalgic tear, the newly engaged sister reveals the details of the engagement to the group and extends an informal invitation to everyone present. Not surprisingly, each chapter has its own unique song for the occasion. Below are some examples of each chapter's different take on candle lighting songs:
Alpha Omicron Pi
There's a longing in the heart of each AOII
for the man that lives in her dreams
someone to share all her sorrows and cares
just a regular fellow it seems.
For the red and white colors are the ones he loves so,
They'll bring him to me, someday I know
For I love him so
And for him I would die
He's the sweetheart of an AOII!
The sisters of Kappa Delta sing The White Rose of Beauty during their candle lighting ceremonies.
The white rose of beauty
the emerald of truth
our honored kappa delta
the pearl of our youth
friendships of sisters forever we'll be
spirit of love we have know in our own KD
Once as i wandered i found kappa delta
you'll know who i am by the pin that i wear
the love that i cherish, the honor i value
kappa delta has taught me to share
Pi Beta Phi
Pi Beta Phi's candle lighting song is called Speed Thee My Arrow.
The women of Pi Beta Phi never print the lyrics to this particular song, instead they teach the words to the new member class each year and the tradition in passed down orally within their chapter. Pi Phi's also sing Speed Thee My Arrow at their sister's wedding receptions!
Zeta Tau Alpha
Deep in the heart of each Zeta there's a man who fills her dreams.
One who is true to the grey and blue.
He's the one for her, it seems.
To him, the girl with the crown and shield is the best he'll always say.
He loves her more than all the rest.
Oh, how I wish he were with me tonight,for he's my Zeta sweetheart.
Several times a year, predominately in the spring semester a melodious mixture of whispers and song fills the amphitheatre on sorority row. This can only mean one thing: a candle lighting ceremony. Candle lighting ceremonies are celebrated by each of the six sororities on Birmingham-Southern's campus. Candle lighting ceremonies typically take place to celebrate an engagement, but less frequently they take place to celebrate the exchange of a fraternity pin or lovelier. Senior Molly Bynum Cook says, “My candlelighting was a really special time for me to share the excitement of my engagement with a group of girls who are very dear to me. It's something I always dreamed of having as a part of my college experience.”
The candle lighting ceremony is not a new folk custom at Birmingham-Southern; however, the sorority townhouses and amphitheatre are relatively new to campus so the events have not always taken place in the same location. Before the sorority townhouses were built, candle lighting celebrations would take place in the Hanson solarium. One alum who graduated in 1985 recalls, “Everyone would come and watch, even the guys, and afterwards the fraternity guys would often drag their newly engaged brother down the hill and toss him in the fountain…sometimes the girl would even end up in the fountain too.”
The change in location from the Hanson solarium to the sorority amphitheatre might have been a factor in the changing atmosphere of these types of festivities. Today, far fewer people gather to observe the ceremonies than in the 1980s. Some things, however, never change. Boys will be boys and rather than throwing their newly engaged brothers into the fountain, today some fraternities have created new rituals such as tying their brothers to a tree and dousing him with chocolate or molasses.
In an essay titled “The College Sorority and Endogamy,” sociologist John Finley Scott states, “they [sororities] differ from fraternities mainly because marriage is a profoundly more important determinant of social position for women than for men and because the norms associated with marriage correspondingly bear stronger sanctions for women than for men” (515). More specifically, however, Scott suggests that rituals such as the candle lighting celebration are enacted in order to put pressure on the members of the organization to marry—and not to marry just anyone, but a member of a fraternity whose membership is comprised of men with higher social and economic status than men who do not belong to a fraternity. He writes, “To keep high the rate of engagement and marriage, sororities rely heavily on emotionally potent ceremonies and rituals to sanctify matrimony. Exposure to and dating of the right ma are not enough; if endogamy is to be maintained the dates must lead to engagements and the engagements to marriage. Thus the sorority subculture, especially as sustained by the alumnae, define all dating encounters as prolegomena to marriage.”
While John Finley Scott makes some interesting connections in his essay, much has changed since it was published in 1965. What I find most fascinating based on my admittedly limited opportunities to speak with alumni from the 1950s, is that candle lightings did not seem to be a part of sorority tradition. Dr. Mary Ann McCollum (1953) said, “No, I don't remember having candle lightings. But back then, everyone got engaged, usually their senior year.” Perhaps the frequency of engagements on campus diminished the need to promote marriage through the candle lighting ceremony. Later, alumni who graduated in the 1980s have very vivid memories of candle lightings, and these are the typically the first memories to emerge during an interview with these alums. Could it be that ‘Southern sorority affiliates are celebrating this seemingly antiquated tradition because the numbers of timely engagements have diminished severely on BSC's campus since the 1950s? This is one theory, however if you ask a ‘Southern sorority affiliate, she will more likely suggest that “candle lightings are just a really fun tradition and a great way to share the news with your sisters.”
Scott, John F. "The American College Sorority: Its Role in Class and Endogamy." American Sociological Review 30 (1965): 514-27.
Email your comments, corrections, or additions to firstname.lastname@example.org.