10 quirky Oxford traditions that will leave you scratching your head

Oxford isn't just a place of academic prowess - it's also one of the most quirky and unique places in the UK. We take a look at the ins and outs of Oxford culture.


6/25/20237 min read

Oxford University, recognized worldwide for its history and prestigious reputation, is not only a home to intellectual aspirations. It is also home to some of the most intriguing, odd, and baffling traditions within British culture. Beneath the monumental halls and between the narrow alleyways, a smorgasbord of eccentric customs has captivated both scholars and guests of the university alike. In this article, we’ll be digging into the bizarre and ritualistic world of Oxford University, shedding light on the quirks that add a charm to the famed institution.

1. Sub Fusc

Oxford University students are recognizable at every formal event thanks to their “Sub Fusc attire”. The dress code consists of dark formal clothing, like a lounge suit, along with a Harry Potter-esque winged black gown. Younger scholars don smaller ones, whereas the most seasoned academics of the University are replete with grand and flowing robes – in light blue, crimson red, or majestic gold embroidery. The origins of Sub Fusc, which is short for sub fuscus (Latin for dark brown) can be traced back to the medieval period. The dark-colored gowns were initially practical garments, worn primarily for warmth. Over time, these garments evolved into the formal dress code we know today associated with academic ceremonies and traditions.

3. May Morning

Every year on May 1st, Oxford students fill the streets and parks to celebrate the arrival of spring with a joyous tradition called May Morning. Towering over Magdalen College, the Magdalen Tower becomes the epicenter of a spectacle. Before dawn the Magdalen College Choir fills the city with hymns, with one member singing from the top of the tower. As the sun crosses the horizon, bells chime ecstatically together, signifying the start of a new season. The festival has pagan origins, rooted in mythology that was present in Celtic England long before the import of Christianity. Some students often get carried away by the festivities and jump into the river beneath Magdalen Bridge whilst fully clothed, causing many injuries. It’s quite common for students to stay up all night passing the time before May Morning, which only adds to the delirium in the streets when the sunrise finally comes.

2. Formal Hall

Formal Hall, also known as College Formal, is a lavish banqueting occasion held by many colleges every week to bring the student community together, and indulge in some fine dining and revelry. Typically, students must wear their Sub Fusc dress when attending formal, and it’s customary to bring a bottle of wine (or two) to mark the occasion. At least three courses are served, at times accompanied by tiny glasses of the traditional drink port. Some colleges are famous for serving deer and fine cheese produced by animals raised within the college grounds. Whereas some of the more conservative colleges hold formals nearly every day, and require tailcoats and white tie dress by social convention, the more relaxed colleges prefer informal dining most days of the week. Strict seating protocols along with Latin grace, toasts, speeches, and the splendor of dining beneath grand vaulted ceilings add to the feeling of the occasion.

4. Tortoise Fair

One of Oxford's most whimsical traditions is the annual Tortoise Fair, which takes place in rotation around the seven colleges which own tortoises. Some of the participating tortoises were born in campus long before the records of the Fair began – even before World War II. Dating back to the 17th century, this peculiar event features a series of competitions including tortoise fights and races. Students meticulously decorate their shelled competitors and guide them around miniature tracks, urging them to win with surprising sincerity. For some, the Tortoise Fair provides a welcome respite from intense academic life, and a chance to be more light-hearted!

5. Matriculation

Matriculation is a rite of passage for every new student of Oxford University, and is marked by several particular customs. Clad in the famous Sub Fusc attire, students assemble in college courtyards to sign their names in the matriculation book, making their formal admittance to the university. They file into a Tudor-era hall, with a painted ceiling like the Sistine Chapel, and listen to long speeches in Oxford’s “native language”, Latin. Traditionally, the students would also have to recite a lengthy Latin passage by memory to gain entrance to the University; although now the passage one is required to recite is very short. The matriculation ceremony is accompanied by a formal dinner, where students engage in another oddity – whispering "benedictus benedicat" , a Latin grace meaning “may he who is blessed, bless” before commencing their meals.

6. Mandela-ing

Since the 1980s, all parties at one Oxford college have ended with students climbing on each other’s shoulders to dance and sing a “Nelson Mandela” tribute song. A motion presented to the Wadham College student body in 1987 made it official college policy to the song to be played the end of every event. This was in recognition of the contribution of Nelson Mandela to ending apartheid - the segragation of races - in South Africa. In December 2013, after Nelson Mandela’s death announcement, the singing at the end of one of the parties continued for more than 30 minutes.

7. Oxford Time Zone

One peculiar aspect of Oxford University is the existence of "Oxford Time." The unique time zone is a tradition that dates back to the 19th century, when the city's clocks were set five minutes behind Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). To this day, some parts of Oxford still observe Oxford time – therefore making it the only city in the UK to observe a different time zone from London. The tradition was kept after digital clocks were invented to provide students with a few extra minutes to reach their classes and lectures, accounting for the need to move around the sprawling and labyrinthine college campuses. Though not legally recognized, the concept of Oxford Time still lingers, with some clocks in the city remaining five minutes and two seconds exactly behind Greenwich Mean Time. It serves as a testament to unique and independent spirit that permeate Oxford University's traditions.

8. Trashing

Being a student at one of the most prestigious universities in the world can be stressful - especially during the exam season. So, at the end of the term or year, when all the trials and tribulations are over, students run outside to participate in trashing ceremonies. Scholars douse each other in shaving foam and confetti – and after these got banned due to environmental pollution, fish guts, rotting milk, and Indian Holi powder. The practice is so rife that authorities actually had to ban it due to the mess on the streets that became a permanent feature of an Oxford June. Today the more sensible practitioners use biodegradable materials, and hide carefully from the authorities to avoid a £150 fine!

9. Merton Time Ceremony

Oxford loves time – and so does Merton College. Merton is one of the oldest colleges of the university, with its 14th-century chapel among the most ancient still standing in the world today. Throughout history it has kept some traditions independent from the rest of the university, including its time ceremony. Every year, the whole college community congregates at 2AM in full academic dress to walk backwards around campus for 60 minutes continuously. The walking backwards is due to the fact that once a year, British Summer Time converts to Greenwich Mean Time, meaning that the clocks go back an hour. As a result, the process both begins and ends at 2AM. The ceremony, although taken more seriously by some, is believed to bring stability and peace to the community.

10. The Great Tom Bell

The Great Tom Bell holds a special place in the hearts of Oxford scholars at Christ Church College. Weighing a staggering 7,000 kilograms, this magnificent bell rings 101 times every single evening. This signifies the 100 original scholars of the college, plus one ring added for unknown reasons in 1663. The ringing begins is set at 9:05 p.m (or Oxford time (9:00). as a reminder to the students that they must return to their college grounds. This was historically important because after this time, the city gates would close, and the high walls of the town would prevent outsiders – or people caught in the surrounding area – from getting in. The ringing of the bell therefore echoes the ancient and medieval character of the world’s second-oldest university


Oxford University's academic excellence and historical significance are complemented by a smorgasbord of strange and fascinating traditions. From Sub Fusc attire and May Morning celebrations to tortoise races and matriculation ceremonies, these peculiar customs contribute to the unique charm of the venerable institution. Whether revelry or ritual, the weird traditions of Oxford University form a vibrant part of its identity, one part scholasticism, another part quirkiness.