Ivy Days: The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Forgotten Ancient Celebration

Savannah Toth, History 250: The Historian Craft, Spring 2023

Ancient cultures have manifested themselves discreetly in American culture all throughout time and history. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln was not excluded from deep-rooted ancient cultural practices, even in the American Midwest. Lincoln’s height of its Ivy Day celebrations may be in the past, but from the 1920’s until the late 1950’s, it was a paramount event that bolstered and uplifted the pride of the University. It is a significant historical celebration of the University, even if its cultural prominence to the University has greatly receded in recent years. During the early 1900’s, the University of Nebraska internalized pagan fertility rituals into its student culture, to praise the development of the University through its Ivy Day celebration, specifically the May Queen processions, as the May Queen was perceived as a symbol to represent the University.

The overall celebration of May Day in the United States has strong ties to Gaelic and Roman mythology and their festivities around the springtime. These rituals took place to specifically celebrate and bring about fertility in ancient cultures. The lore of these practices takes root in a story of the Queen of Winter and May Queen engaging in a battle towards the beginning of spring to marry the “May King”.[1] The May Queen would routinely “win” this battle and be crowned and her marriage to the King would be celebrated. With this marriage, the King provided spring rains and flower gardens as an endowment, marking the beginning of spring and the end of winter around May. This marriage was celebrated every year in Pagan communities by decorating public spaces and the customary Maypole with flowers and wearing clothing and flowers to symbolize spring. They would additionally sacrificially release animals such as goats and rabbits, as they were also symbols of fertility as a way to honor and celebrate the Spring Queen. These rituals were to mark and bring forth the beginning of a fertile spring, as well as the cleansing away of the past winter. Over time, these rituals have been carried on into other cultures, and are subtly seen in modern day celebrations with a similar core purpose.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln may be hundreds of years and hundreds of miles away from the origins of May Day celebrations, yet it seems to have eerily similar traditions. In Lincoln, around the beginning of May and late April, the students, faculty, and nearby community celebrated “Ivy Day”. This started in 1901 as an event for the senior class to celebrate their time at the University and plant ivy that will continue to grow after they graduate as a way to further signify the continuous growth of these graduates after college life and the University as well.[2] The campus would be decorated and celebrated to observe the beginning of spring and the nearing end of the school year. As time went on, this celebration became more and more elaborate with the introduction of an Ivy Day “Queen” in 1912.[3] A female student from the senior class would be selected for her achievements and contributions to the UNL campus, and further along in Ivy Day celebrations she would have a court of pages in the junior, sophomore, and freshmen classes, as well as a maid of honor. This became one of the most highly profiled and anticipated events until the decline and end of Ivy Day festivities in the 1960’s.

In 1912, the first Ivy Queen, Louise Barr, was crowned. She was selected by the Black Masque honors organization, now Mortar Board, for her involvements and leadership on the UNL campus.[4] This first Ivy Queen celebration included her being pulled in an authentic Japanese jinrikisha to her throne, decorated in flowers. To the throne, underclassmen girls would carry a daisy chain, as senior girls would carry an ivy chain. The women who were a part of the procession and court typically wore white or bright spring-colored gowns, while the Queen usually wore a white dress or gown and had flower accessories.[5] As described in the Nebraska Alumnus, these events took place to “typify the flowering of the University into an institution which is the pride of the entire state.” [6] This procession was held to celebrate and encourage the flourishing of the University, as well as welcoming of the springtime. Most of the surrounding Lincoln community would attend as well to celebrate this event. Local children would play roles in the procession as they would hold a pillow with the Queen’s crown or follow her down the aisle holding the train of her gown as she walked up to the altar of her throne. This was not only a reflection and celebration of the UNL campus, but of the state and surrounding areas. The act of celebrating the queen’s crowning was the heart of Ivy Day for the campus, as well as the Lincoln community.

Ivy Day was an annual celebration to commemorate the overall flourishing and progress of the University, state of Nebraska, and Lincoln. Not only was the Ivy Queen celebrated, but the Order of the Black Masque, now Mortar Board, selected their new members, as did the Innocents Society. [7] These groups primarily were made up of distinguished seniors who would soon be graduating that needed to choose junior students to fill their roles in contributing to the improvement of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Furthermore, Ivy Day events were to show gratitude for what the graduating senior class had accomplished with the planting of ivy and contributed to the advancement of the culture and education of the University. [8] Each year there was a different speaker who would present on a topic pertaining to the current University or local Nebraskan politics. One speech specifically in 1937 called for physical improvements and reconfiguration for effective use of space on campus to accommodate the growing student population. In doing so, the orator, Frank E. Landis, refers to the state and University as she, conveying the idea that these institutions were womanly figures who developed over time.[9] The University and state were feminine objects or embodiments for the people and students of Nebraska to improve and celebrate. Likewise in the ancient Pagan rituals, women were typically the goddesses and figures worshiped. The goddess of May in particular was the symbol for fertility and development, which draws a parallel between Nebraskan life and ancient Pagan practices.

The processions of these events are peculiarly similar to each other, as well as their underlying purposes. The idea of a May Day Queen in pagan culture was a symbol to be worshiped to encourage the prosperity of agriculture and life in an ancient village. [10] Honoring the Queen with flowers and a celebration ritual annually was believed to bring about a proper spring and wash away winter. She was a figure to be celebrated and encouraged to embody the progression of abundance for the good of these civilizations. Likewise, on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, the Ivy Day Queen was also a symbol. She was celebrated by much of the student body by decorating and dancing around the maypole, as well as watching and honoring her as she was crowned on her throne. As one year’s Ivy Day poet, Gwen Thompson, even stated, 

“Behold her now, the symbol

of our dreams!

Behold her court in all its

bright array.

A bit of ancient fairy lore it


The realized beauty of Our Ivy Day.” [11]

The Ivy Day Queen was a physical figure to be idolized for the growth of the University. A selected woman of achievement was not only recognized for her academic strengths, but also for her ability to depict the desired appearance and triumph of the UNL campus. She represented their dreams for how the University will grow in the future, yet also seemed out of the ancient ritual or “lore” for how she is celebrated. The Ivy Day Queen was not only a figure representing the excellence of the University but someone to worship to further the progression and growth of the University each year. Her presence gave Ivy Day its true purpose and the buzz that encapsulated and invigorated the glory of the University for its students and the Lincoln citizens.

In terms of today, Ivy Day is nothing but a distant memory to alumni and campus history. Even as this event had such a firm grasp on the social life and culture of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, its elaborate rituals and ceremonies came to an end with time. With strong anti-war sentiments arising in the 1960’s due to the US involvement in Vietnam, campus life was radically changing.[12] According to the Daily Nebraskan, there was questioning, and less importance placed onto campus tradition, leading to Ivy Day’s decline. Students were more focused on tackling current day political issues than celebrating the excellence of the University that they felt still needed change. Frank Solich, a notable Nebraska University alumnus, is quoted as saying “‘The university is always changing and moving forward, and sometimes in moving forward some traditions get left behind'’." [13] As a result, the events celebrating the advancements and development of the University were left in the dust due to the student movement towards advancement and away from older traditions.

During Ivy Day, the University was esteemed for its increasing student population and in turn its intellectualism. More and more buildings are being built to support these growing numbers of students and while the appearance of the University is enhanced. [14] In this way, the annual celebration of Ivy Day and paying homage to its own queen, the University and Lincoln community is encouraging its own form of industrial and societal prosperity. Even the dress of the May Queen points to the significance and existence of Paganism in Nebraska. She is wearing a large, regal white gown while walking up to an altar. [15] This points to some similarity to the wedding of the May Queen to the May King, while here the Ivy Day Queen is celebrated in terms of the University. She is celebrated as someone who is a symbol to bring upon the prosperity of the University, just as the traditional pagan May Queen brought along gifts of flowers and future fertility from the Spring King. [16] The people of the University of Nebraska- Lincoln and the surrounding community may not have had awareness of it, yet they continued to be ecstatic participants in this fertility ritual during its height to its eventual decline.

Ivy Day was a distinctive ceremony at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for its various ceremonies and activities, as well as how it brought the community together to revere the excellence of the University and state. What many of these attendees were not aware of was their participation in pagan fertility culture. Their celebrating may have had a more modern purpose in the flourishing of the university, but the similarities are striking in their ways to encourage local growth and prosperity. These internalized fertility and growth pagan rituals at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln were deeply woven into its student life, to commend the abundance of the University through Ivy Day and using the figurehead of the Ivy Day Queen to physically embody the institution.


1. George, Arthur, “May Day: Beltane Fires and the May Queen-Goddess," 121- 133, The Mythology of America’s Seasonal Holidays: The Dance of the Horae, Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing AG, 2020.

2. Hoffman, Bernice. “Ivy Days.” Lincoln: The Nebraska Alumnus, Box: Special Subject Files Ivy Day (1), Folder: Ivy Day 1901 – 1944, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, 1938; “Annual Ivy Day Exercises Held.” Newspaper clipping. Box: Special Subject Files Ivy Day (1), Folder: Ivy Day 1901 – 1944, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, 1928; “Ivy Day Festivities Increase Each Year”, News clipping, Box: Special Subject Files Ivy Day (1) Folder: Ivy Day 1901 – 1944, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, 1951; Hoffman, Bernice. “Ivy Days.” Lincoln: The Nebraska Alumnus; “Ivy Day”, Lincoln: The Nebraska Alumnus. 1914, Box: Special Subject Files Ivy Day (1) Folder: Ivy Day 1901 – 1944.

3. “U.N. Ivy Day Festivities”, Lincoln: The Daily Nebraskan, 1945,  https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1945-05-06/ed-1/seq-1/#words=Day+day+Ivy; “Ivy Day . . .”, Lincoln, NE: The Daily Nebraskan, 1945, . https://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/lccn/sn96080312/1945-05-04/ed-1/seq-4/#words=Day+Ivy; “Orator Bares Needs of University”, Lincoln, NE: The Daily Nebraskan, 1937, Box: Special Subject Files Ivy Day (1) Folder: Ivy Day 1901 – 1944.

4. George, “May Day: Beltane Fires and the May Queen-Goddess,"; Thompson, Gwen, “Ivy Day Poem”, Lincoln: The Daily Nebraskan, 1934, Box: Special Subject Files Ivy Day (1) Folder: Ivy Day 1901 – 1944.

5. Adam, Suzanna. “Ivy Days echo from UNL's past”, Lincoln: The Daily Nebraskan, 2006; Knoll, Robert. “A Time of Discontinuities 1968-1971", 148-151, Prairie University: A History of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln: Nebraska Press, 2022.

6. “Annual Ivy Day Exercises Held.”; “Ivy Day”, The Nebraska Alumnus; George, “May Day: Beltane Fires and the May Queen-Goddess."

Photo Citations:

Box: Special Subject Files Ivy Day (1), Folder: Ivy Day Undated, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries

Box: Special Subject Files Ivy Day (1), Folder: Ivy Day Undated, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries

Ivy Days: The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Forgotten Ancient Celebration