We recently discovered this last ritual -- and not while singing carols at the old folks' home. No, public urination to mark the holidays occurs at a much more unlikely place: that Peninsular fortress of higher learning, Stanford University.
It takes place the week before final exams. Christmas is in the air, but so is adrenaline -- these kids have linear algebra to study for. Images of women in French cinema. Operating systems. It's a stressful time, and many students find release in the unique campus tradition known as Secret Snowflake.
Modeled on Secret Santa gift exchanges popular in classrooms and offices, Secret Snowflake is nondenominationally named so as to exclude no one from its festivities. You don't need to love Jesus to play this game. And it might help not to, because afterward he probably won't love you.
The rules are simple: Each participant gets a secret partner, who assigns one humiliating task for each day of the week. Completion of every task earns a gift at the end of the week, and the revelation of the taskmaster's identity. Students can choose their desired level of humiliation. Level 1 might be a rendition of a Christmas ditty. Level 5, discovered freshman Ben Berman, 18, is pants-wetting territory.
Presumably to aid digestion, the self-degradations usually take place over dinner. Dog Bites sampled a few, along with spicy lentils and tomato soup, in a dormitory called Loro House. It was the night after Berman's urinary extravaganza, and things started small. A young man across from us simply spewed expletives at regular intervals, as if in the throes of a Tourette's outbreak. "Shit bastard pussy!" he exclaimed through a mouthful of lentils. He sipped his soup: "Ass dick fuck!"
Then came freshman Annie Chang, 18. A friend had to carry her tray, because her task that night was to eat dinner with no hands. Her plate was heaped with chicken curry and vanilla ice cream. "I wanted to make things interesting," she said, beaming.
She proceeded to eat her meal in a manner Dog Bites recognized as distinctly canine. Her one concession to human cleanliness was a bowl of water in which she rinsed her face between courses. Her friend at a neighboring table wasn't so lucky. His job was to fake narcolepsy, plunging his snoring head into a plate of spaghetti. Episodes appeared random, until someone discovered the trigger -- his name.
While he plastered his face with marinara, we took a break to sample the dining hall's soft-serve ice cream. And, just like the guy who gets cut from Apollo 13, we missed the best part. While we were putting sprinkles on our chocolate-vanilla swirl, Berman was striding out to face his colleagues, nude except for a healthy glop of shaving gel that accentuated rather than camouflaged his pubic hair. The crowd laughed and screamed, but Berman was modest about his achievement. "Walking out pretty much naked isn't such a big deal," he said.
He had a point. The previous night, freshman Benjamin Nelson, 19, had wrapped his penis in a hot dog bun -- and then asked a female friend to slather it with mustard and ketchup. He described his Secret Snowflake experience as "healthy," though presumably not nutritionally so.
And still to come this finals week was the Boy With the Blue Balls, whose job was to Magic Marker his testicles and clothe their companion organ in a tube sock. Another student's job was to remove the sock. Stanford's not educating slackers, though; she did it with her mouth.
Not everyone approves of fellatio over dinner, simulated or not. The school's Office of Residential Education banned Secret Snowflake this year from the dining halls, citing complaints from cleaning staff about the mess. Ever resourceful, students took their hot dogs, narcoleptic fits, and shaving gel into the dorm lounges. Chang saw the dining hall ban as part of a conservative trend at Stanford. "In a few years," she worried, "it won't be a fun school."
Why equate fun with self-humiliation? "I think of myself as a pretty sick and twisted person," said Berman, "so I didn't imagine that I could be surprised by my task. Then, sure enough, I wake up and under my door there's a note telling me I have to pee myself." Dog Bites had to wonder -- why fight for a tradition that disturbs even the twisted? Indeed, why submit to Secret Snowflake at all?
Perhaps to win the accolades of fellow students. Senior Frank Newman, 21, described Berman's antics as "hilarious." "I really admire a man who is willing to do things that I would be afraid to do," he said. "I gave him my support and applause. Especially when he peed himself."
Newman relished the memory of his own Snowflake experience. His favorite stunt: standing on a table and pouring a glass of water on his rear while inquiring loudly, "Did somebody say, 'Wet ass'?" His taskmaster, a shrewd analyst of finals-week conversation, instructed him to perform every time he heard the word "work."
For many, Secret Snowflake is a way to escape that word. It offers Chang a welcome break, the "opportunity to look at things different and loosen up a little." The tasks may seem embarrassing, "but in reality [they] aren't because everyone is always doing something embarrassing." If nothing else, smearing yourself in spaghetti sauce takes the edge off a day spent studying long hydrocarbon chains. Along with their clothes, Stanford students may shed the highbrow, holier-than-thou stigma of intellectual endeavor. After all, he who sticks his dick in a bun is holier than no one.
So, as the new year begins, Dog Bites invites you to say a little prayer for the survival of Secret Snowflake. And perhaps even to save a place in next year's holiday celebration for a little Snowflake of your own. Rather than sweeping holiday humiliation under the rug, consider embracing it. When Uncle George falls asleep in his turkey, why not join him? Chang's already got next year planned out. She's upping her self-abasement level, but she's not too worried about the consequences. After all, she says, "I don't have a dick to flash."