“Aristotelis” – All Students Celebration. After 50 years vital new student celebration awaiting fresh vision
Every student of the University of Latvia (UL) started their studies with Aristotle celebration. This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the traditional Aristotle’s day – already for the 50th time, on August 31, UL freshmen meet in Dome Square for the ceremony followed by the procession to their Alma Mater. Times have changed, but the tradition continues to live and develop. There is no other Latvian or even Baltic university, celebrating start of the academic year on such a large scale.
How Varslavāns Defended Aristotle against Lomonosov
Fifty years ago, Professor Alberts Varslavāns, the UL Vice-rector for Science of that time, was among the initiators of the student celebration which would mark the beginning of studies. Rinalds Gulbis, UL final year doctoral student in Theology, who currently is an ordained priest in Germany, has actively participated in the organisation of Aristotle celebrations for the past 10 years and in the last few years conducted the ceremony in Dome Square. Arriving from Germany specifically for this purpose, he points out that the large scale of this festivity makes the UL a unique University in the Baltic States. The beginning of academic year is also celebrated in other countries, including universities in the other Baltic States; however, Aristotle celebration is notable with its quality and enduring traditions.
The idea and arrangement of the celebration has remained unchanged through the years. Of course, initially the celebrations could not happen without an input from the existing regime. Edīte Simanoviča, director of the cultural, artistic and educational creative society “Juventus”, who actively participated in Aristotle celebrations from 1973 to 2006, recalls that the scenario should have been negotiated with the Kirov District Party Committee, where it had always been approved though. Whereas, R. Gulbis states that after the first Aristotle celebrations the Party Committee raised an objection to the name “Aristotelis” as being too bourgeois, and offered to rename it to „Lomonosov” celebration. However, Professor Varslavāns objected to that, explaining that after existing historical evidence, exactly Lomonosov appeared to be bourgeois, and the Communist Party officials agreed to name the celebration after the Greek philosopher.
Students Had to Buy out Deans of Faculties
The ceremony of Aristotle celebration, known for its liberal atmosphere, has always started in Dome Square – the heart of Riga. E. Simanoviča states, “Usually, we developed the scenario so that Dome Square would be filled with the student spirit. For example, students had to buy out deans of faculties. Imants Adermanis and Ārijs Geikins, directors of the UL Student Theatre participated and assisted me in t organising the celebrations for many years. We have developed the effective cooperation with “Latvijas Radio”, that added music to our event in Dome Square. There was suspense created – in which part of Dome Square Aristotle will appear – and he delivered a speech from the Riga Bourse building, “Latvijas Radio” building balcony, and even from the Dome Cathedral tower. After the speeches of UL rector and others followed the procession to the main UL building, in 19 Raiņa Boulevard. Initially, the procession moved from Dome Square to the National Theatre of Latvia, then along Valdemāra Street to Raiņa Boulevard, the traffic stopped and students walked singing. We sang the UL anthem, its music composed by Jāzeps Vītols and lyrics by Edvards Virze, folksongs, and our favourite „Mūsu Gaudeamus” by Valters Kaminskis. In 1991, after the restoration of Latvia’s independence, the celebration became very emotional; then the route of the procession was changed and we went to the Freedom Monument for the first time. Similarly, in 2003 students were deeply moved by President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga’s emotional and beautiful speech in Dome Square.”
R. Gulbis notes: “In the 1980s Aristotle celebrations were filled with certain free-thinking, protest and revival spirit. In 1988, the red-white-red flag appeared for the first time in this festival. In the 1990s student corporations again participated in the celebrations and led the procession.” E. Simanoviča emphasizes that over 50 years the celebrations have never been cancelled, and took place even after the August Putsch in 1991. She also remembers all people who acted in the role of Aristotle delivering speeches: actors Arnis Līcītis, Kārlis Auškāps, Imants Adermanis, Gundars Āboliņš, Harijs Spanovskis, Guntis Skrastiņš, journalist Dzintris Kolāts, and this year, actor Jānis Paukštello.
“Aristotelis” and Competition between Universities
Juris Zaķis, former UL rector, who began to immerse in the atmosphere and traditions of Aristotle celebration in 1984, when he was the UL Vice-rector for Sciences, remembers: “A question arose how to continue the tradition. The ceremony at large remained unchanged, but to make it more attractive we introduced several new elements. For example, initially by tradition, at the opening of the ceremony host shouts for Aristotle from the tribune: “Aristoteli, parādies!” (“Come, Aristotle!”), and Aristotle appears on the balcony of “Latvijas Radio” building. In my time the tradition changed – Aristotle arrives at the ceremony as a guest. I wondered why the celebration is named exactly after Aristotle. What does his name mean to us today? It reveals what Europe since the Middle Ages acknowledged – science and education took its rise in Greece, then it was taken over by the Roman Empire and afterwards by Europe. Aristotle’s name is the right choice for this celebration; it symbolically takes us over Latvian boundaries, and connects us to the common flow of European sciences and academic education.” J. Zaķis reveals that he had an idea to turn Aristotle celebrations into the whole Riga and Latvia student festival: “I wish Latvian universities would stop competing, because – how can one compete with itself? Aristotle celebrations could become one of the components of this uniting process, when all students gather in Dome Square – the heart of Riga (and accordingly Latvia) – as one united family. Unfortunately, as I quit the post of rector, the idea of competition among universities started to develop. I feel slightly upset about the unimplemented idea of all-student celebration. Possibly, every idea has its time.”
From Dome Square to Aristotle Ball in the UL Great Hall
R. Gulbis says, “The tradition has consistently remained unchanged. However, the students themselves have changed. Previously, celebration in Dome Square was the major thing for students; today their anticipation of the ball prevails. Still, our academic family is very large and it is important to gather in Dome Square to meet the administration of the University and its faculties, as well as new course mates. Latvia’s Minister of Education and Science and the President of Latvia often participate in the ceremony as well. Aristotle celebration is a very significant event.” In turn, E. Simanoviča states that in order to maintain the special atmosphere of Aristotle celebrations, the ceremony in Dome Square and delivered speeches should be more academic, leaving gaiety until the procession and festive ball. She also doubts whether the Great Hall – the heart of the University main building – should open its doors to first-year students already at the beginning of studies. “I wish all students would concentrate on the very essence of Aristotle celebration and, in the course of studies, understand the importance of the University in their life, as well as memorise the student anthem and University of Latvia anthem, in order not to ask, “what song is this” later.
What does this celebration mean to students and what is their attitude towards it? Santa Zarāne, chairperson of the UL Student Council, points out the importance of the whole event. “It is the most significant event organised by the Student Council and meant to introduce students to the University of Latvia. It is a tradition. The festivity in Dome Square welcomes not only freshmen, but also graduates, corporations, everyone interested. I believe that the first part of the celebration should remain unchanged. The procession and the ball take place after the gathering in Dome Square. In the midnight, young people take the student oath and become students,” says S. Zarāne. She disagrees with the opinion that the majority of students await the party. S. Zarāne also explains why Aristotle celebration, which used to be held in different places, has taken place in the Great Hall in the past few years: “The UL is building a campus in Torņakalns. As soon as it is ready, the students will leave the main building in Raiņa Boulevard. It is exciting and important for new students to visit the main building of the UL at the beginning of their studies and then return here to receive their diplomas. Moreover, “Aristotelis” is the celebration, meant not for new students alone, but for all students. Apart from first-year students, the festive ball is open for the UL staff, the representatives of Student Council and all students of the University of Latvia.”
We can definitely feel proud about the fact that Aristotle celebration has taken place for 50 years. “This celebration certainly is a beautiful and large-scale event,” notes J. Zaķis, “and this tradition should continue and develop in future. It should acquire new and deeper meaning. Perhaps, this UL festivity could become a celebration for all Latvian students, and then we could invite guests from overseas.” With these words J. Zaķis encourages everyone to bring forward new great ideas.