As part of the Chi Omega tradition in welcoming the newest members, this sorority hosts a Sisterhood Retreat, usually on a riverboat, filled with food, fun, and the ugliest owls known to man. The main event of the Sisterhood Retreat is the Ugly Owl exchange. Each sister is required to find the most unsuitable owl possible, wrap it in beautiful wrapping, and then be prepared to play the “White Elephant” game, but with owls. And no matter how hard each sister tries, she is always stuck with a very ugly owl.
Chi Omega sisters, collected by Keller Johnson in 2006
In his article “Gag Gifts: Borders of Intimacy in American Popular Culture,” Dennis Hall emphasizes the idea that “culture” is more about processes than products. This gift exchange is not about the end result (who ends up with the ugliest owl); it's about the process of finding, giving, and receiving. Hall notes the transgressive potential in gag gifts. Basically, they subvert the status quoas parody does inherently; in this case, the thing being parodied is a more heartfelt gift exchange. But that does not mean that this ritual works against the stated goal of welcoming newcomers into the intimate circle of the group. Hall concludes: “the desired result which drives gag gifts is intimacy. One does not, ordinarily, if ever, give gag gifts to strangers, nor do I think they are common traffic between people who share intimacy, are characteristic of an established state of intimacy” (173).
- How long has this been a tradition for the Chi Omegas?
- Does the sorority use owls in other unofficial ways?
- Do other groups engage in ritual gift exchange?
- Do those exchanges generally revolve around a specific type of gift?
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- Hall, Dennis. “Gag Gifts: Borders of Intimacy in American Popular Culture.” Journal of American and Comparative Cultures 24.3-4 (Fall/Winter 2001): 171-75.