Quincentenary May Ball – Or St. John’s 500-Year-Old Party

How to explain the splendor of a ball? The lights, the fireworks, the delicate press of feet against grass and under silk gowns, the swirling chaos of many stages, multiple stages, the temptation towards gluttony, the piles of food glistening under the stars, the way the college itself with all its old stone buildings sits lit up like a fatted calf, gleaming in reds and purples from the lights projected throughout it… how do you explain that?

What about the way students gather on the bridge, pressing together to look out over the river that is suddenly no longer filled with water, but punts? “You could walk across it,” said a friend of mine as we crushed together for a moment, staring out at the hundreds and hundreds of people below. They had come to watch the fireworks; they had come to watch the ball.

“I feel strange being here in my suit, like this, with everyone down there,” said N, holding his glass of wine and looking at me.

“Don’t. Just wave.”

How do you explain the nine stages, the 82 acts, the 300-something performers, scattered throughout St. John’s College like little forgotten gems? Comedy shows, silent discos, magic, a rave with neon colours and smoke machines casting the entire tent into the madness of a clown’s dream. How do you detail that?

“They want to make you feel almost frustrated,” a friend told me at one point. “There is so much to do. So many things. Performers. Acts. Games. Things to watch. But you can’t do it all. And that is the point of the ball…”

We tried though, rushing from the ponies that pranced delicately on their hind legs (“You don’t realize how -rare- it is to see this!” exclaimed Z as she remained stubbornly beside the horses) to the low-slung bean bag seats surrounding shisha pipes. We visited the silent disco. We considered the bumper cars. We wandered through the court that was covered in fake snow and smiling penguins, past the one draped in rich fabric, one representing the Victorian Era (“Look! You can get your hair done!” “…my hair is already done.”) and on and on. But we didn’t see nearly half of it.

And the food… how in the world do you explain the food and drink, the decadence so strong it makes heads reel and stomachs stretch? So many courses, so many niblets, from crepes and waffles as the sun rose to curries, pies, cupcakes, meats, cheeses, plates and plates of cheeses (“But where is the bread?” “Shhh. Just eat the cheese.”), fruits piled onto tabletops, mangos and apples and berries (“I found passion fruit!” “That is NOT meant to be a drinks mixer”), and all of it just waiting to be consumed? We wandered the entire night never really ceasing to eat. It was more of a challenge than the bumper cars, more tempting than lazer quest, to taste and sample what every tent had to offer.

The drinks were just as varied and just as available: mixed cocktails of vodka, wines, mead, beer, juice, freshly pressed berry drinks in bright pinks that tasted like melted popsicles but carried the punch of something potent, champagne, gin and tonics, whiskey, rum, tequila.

Z and I marked each other’s arms every time we had a drink. “It’s a challenge,” I stated. “To see who can last the longest.”

We both lasted the longest.

How can you capture the fireworks, the powerful explosions lurching into the sky, casting light over so many young faces and so many black-tied students? Together they stood like little soldiers, arms and elbows draped together, swaying with the music even as one firework after another exploded upwards. I caught Z’s elbow. “Wow.” I could only gasp over and over, at loss for words. “Wow.” The rolling green that is St. John’s Backs was full of viewers, all of them likewise gasping, likewise holding their breath to the timing of the music and the pulse.

“It is so much better than Trinity’s fireworks,” said M. “So much.”

“Of course.”

These things perhaps can’t be explained, not in a way that fully captures the splendor and champagne-haze hours of ball. For even my best descriptions won’t quite capture the poignant beauty of the scene, the delicate realization that it was all amazing and simultaneously all timed, a ticking clock of splendor. The ball lasts for fourteen hours. I saw the sun go down and rise again over black-tied students. Yet as it starts, so it must end – and this is what makes it bitterly sweet, one of those things that even as you grasp at it, trying to claim each minute back, each second back, it is escaping away.

“It’s light out again,” said Z as we sat sipping tea and wine. “It’s daylight.”

“Don’t let it be daylight. That means the ball is almost over.”

“Not yet. It’s the summer solstice. We still have time.”

She was right and wrong; for we had time, time enough to eat and drink, seeing friends and playing games – but not enough. The ball ended with the St. John’s Gents standing in blazing red serenading in the morning. Breakfast was served.

“Not yet…” I wanted to say. Don’t let it be over yet, for this was my last St. John’s May Ball. It was also the marking of what ended my time as a student, as a Johnian and a Creighton-kid, as someone tied to school books and school norms.

The ball has ended. I have finished.

And while I’m not quite sure I can explain it all, the hazes and colors and love, the way the fireworks caught the silk of dresses and the students gasped together in delight, I can say one thing for sure: the journey was amazing.The ball was amazing.

…and the ponies didn’t hurt.

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