The History of Santa Catalina’s Traditions

Sarah Sallee
March 26, 2021

According to Merriam Webster, a tradition is “a belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable.” At Santa Catalina School, traditions are the metaphorical pillars that uplift the student body. From the design of the kilts, to decorating the campus for Christmas, to the beloved, annual graduation ceremony, traditions are cherished as they remind students of why Santa Catalina is not just a school, but a community. Traditions are opportunities to share the stories of how and why the school was formed, and more importantly, the reason alumnae return to visit this home away from home year after year. 

The Kilts

Catalinan, 1952.

From the roses in the Hacienda garden, to the evolution of Upper School uniforms, Santa Catalina has an array of traditions that have developed over the years. The school was founded in 1950 on a 36-acre site in Monterey, California that was originally owned by Colonel Harold Mack, a prominent rancher during the late 1920s. 

According to History teacher, Mr. Broeck Oder, the inclusion of kilts in the uniform began with the school’s founding. Yearbook photographs from the 50s and 60s include images of the simple, ankle-length plaid kilts girls wore everyday. The uniform also featured what appeared to be grey jackets with matching kilt trim along the buttons and button-hole areas. However, Mr. Oder shares that the kilt designs changed some time in the 60s before he joined the school in 1979. According to Mr. Oder, “the kilts in my time closely resembled the kilts of Clan Macgregor (or McGregor), from what I was told by someone who knew Scottish heraldry.” By 1979, uniform jackets had also evolved, as a deep, forest-green blazer was introduced. Unfortunately, due to sizing complications and pricing, the blazers were eventually phased out by the early 90s. 

During this period, students had a winter and summer uniform; the winter uniform consisted of a longer, wool kilt that had a pin to keep it shut while the spring kilt was made from a lighter material and color scheme. While the winter kilt protected students from the cold, K-4 Religion teacher and Compass Coordinator, Mrs. Ibi Murphy ‘83, shares that on rainy days the sodden kilts would retain a ‘special smell’ – “much like a wet lamb.” During her student years, Mrs. Murphy recalled the blazer was “for special senate ceremonies and events like that… it made you feel very important.” In addition, Mrs. Murphy expressed her love for their pinstriped summer uniforms, which had a pink and blue or (starting in 1988) yellow option. “These evolved each year. I really loved the ones before my time that had the wider stripes and were cotton. They reminded me of the pinstriped volunteers at CHOMP. Even in my four years, the stripes got smaller and smaller and the material changed.” In the late 90s, the kilt’s plaid pattern changed once again; by the early 2000s, the navy sweater was introduced, a staple for generations to come. In recent years, the same blue, brown, and gold plaid kilt and navy sweater can be seen throughout the school week as girls travel between classes.

One of the most significant moments to date in the uniform’s evolution occurred in 2019, when navy blue pants and windbreakers were officially introduced to the Upper School. Today, the uniforms of Santa Catalina students remain safely stored in girls’ closets around the world as they prepare to return to campus. Freshmen who chose to return to campus for socially-distanced learning have already broken out the plaid since January in their freshman cohorts. Whether on or off campus, the plaid reminds current students and alumnae of their Catalina community and the memories they made while sporting those special kilts. 

Ring Week

Catalinan, 1954.

The tradition of Santa Catalina seniors “giving” the juniors their class rings dates back to the beginning of the school’s history. Originally, Ring Week was simply a dinner; juniors and seniors would dress up, celebrate, and juniors would take the first step to joining the alumnae community by receiving their class rings, which feature crests decorated with symbols of the school’s Catholic heritage. According to Mr. Oder, “[Ring Week] was more like ‘Ring 48 hours’ because part of the protocol at that time was that it was a surprise! So…  on a Thursday at Assembly (back when that was at 7:55 am), some seniors would just get up, announce Saturday was Ring Dinner, and they’d hand out invites. Boom, see you Saturday!” This last-minute technique had to be adapted around 1983: thanks to Mr. Oder, who was Assistant Dean of Students, and members of the Class of ‘83, Ring Dinner was planned and announced well in advance to ensure all students could attend without fear of scheduling conflicts. As has been custom since the 50s, only juniors, seniors, and a few select faculty members attend Ring Dinner. No matter the year, the moment of receiving one’s ring stands out in many Catalina graduates’ minds. 

Christmas: Candlelight Mass

Christmas celebrations in 1980 and 2018, respectively.

Christmas on Catalina’s campus is a time of chocolate, cheer, and celebration as the whole community honors the holiday and students prepare to return home for break. Candlelight Mass started with the founding of the school as an opportunity for the community to gather and honor the birth of Jesus. In many ways, Mr. Oder says the Christmas customs are “ ‘dawn of time’ traditions which the Catalina community continues to honor every year.” However, Mr. Oder shared that “the Christmas aspect that has changed a lot is the all-school Christmas dinner. Until 1985, first semester finals were in late January, not before Christmas. So, there’d be the last night (a Friday) before everybody took off for Christmas break.” The entire Upper School attended— “students, faculty, staff, gardeners, housekeepers, etc.” Afterwards, a Christmas show would take place at the Sister Carlotta Performing Arts Center, led by Mr. Bill Clapper and featuring Catalina’s choir and best student musicians. The juniors performed as the Christmas mimes: “silent, slow-motion reproductions of some of the paintings of the Italian Renaissance painter Fra Angelico,” acting out the story of Jesus’ birth as another person read the appropriate Bible passages. For example, “the girl playing Gabriel would slo-mo through the physical motions of appearing to Mary, as would the girl playing Mary in response.” While it takes a moment to visualize this concept, “it was a BIG thing to get a part in it, and being Mary was like being the Homecoming Queen at any other high school.”

A Catalina Christmas tradition that continues to this day is the Christmas Candlelight Mass, one of the favorite Catalina traditions of Assistant Director of Alumni Engagement, Mrs. Shannon Gaughf ‘08. She says, “I associate the Christmas season so strongly with Catalina and I would often attend Candlelight Mass as an alum. I love that the choir still sings “Peace Peace/Silent Night,” as it is one of my favorites.” In recent years, at the end of the Mass, the lights dim, and everyone’s handheld candles fill the room with light and warmth. Mrs. Murphy shares: “ It was as beautiful then[when she was a student] as it is now and held the spirit of a silent night as much as anything I have ever known.” Math and Computer Science teacher, Mrs. Amy Mulgrew ‘02, also enjoys Candlelight Mass due to the “carol singing around the old holly tree outside the chapel afterward. I’m glad that we now sing around the fire at the Head of School’s house.” No matter the setting, the Christmas season holds a special place in the hearts of the students and faculty of Santa Catalina. 

Spirit Day and Cake Auction

Left: Mr. Oder at Cake Auction in 2019. Right: A ‘Fast Cake’ made by seniors.

Students associate Spirit Day and Cake Auction with vibrant colors, biodegradable glitter everywhere, singing, and loads of fun on Catalina’s campus. Spirit Day consists of friendly competitions, as all four grades deck out in their class colors and take the gymnasium floor to commemorate the end of the year. Cake Auction is the climax of the energetic afternoon. Seniors design and bake the elaborate cakes, which are auctioned off in order to raise money for the senior class gift. Cake themes range from Jurassic Park to In-N-Out Burger, and students can also find allergy-free cake options to taste after the auction is over. Mrs. Mulgrew shares that, “now as a teacher, I think I like Spirit Day & Cake Auction the best. It is a beautiful way to include all the classes in the celebrations as the seniors prepare to depart. Plus I love cake. That tradition has stayed remarkably similar to how I remember it… maybe that is because of the auctioneer.” As to tacking “auctioneer” onto his list of responsibilities on campus, Mr. Oder shared that he first experienced Cake Auction in May, 1980. Assured that this was a long-standing tradition, Mr. Oder was surprised when told later that the first Cake Auction had been held in May, 1979! Having witnessed every auction since 1980, Mr. Oder became the auctioneer following the retirement of Mr. Ken Jackman, Chair of the Science Department, whom Mr. Oder describes as “the world’s greatest-ever chemistry teacher (seriously, the guy won an EMMY for teaching it on TV!!).” Once Mr. Jackman retired, Mr. Oder got the role since he was Dean of Students and already had experience from covering for Mr. Jackman once during the ‘84 auction. Mr. Oder explains, “Everything I know about doing Cake Auction is in homage to Mr. Jackman, because ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’ As noted, the tradition is largely unchanged since ’79, even down to only two auctioneers over that whole time.  It originated as what I guess was supposed to be a one-time fund-raiser, but it was such a hit, it became (quickly) an annual tradition… the class of ’80 bought the school its first VCR (and a VCR in 1980 cost close to $2,000 because they were so new at that time. That would be about $6,500 in today’s money).” In recent years, graduation classes have used the money to plant trees, gift benches, and cover the cost of new mattresses in the Health Center. 


Graduation is a time of reflection, joy, and tears as new graduates prepare to embark on the next chapter of their lives. Freshmen are introduced to Santa Catalina with an opening reception on Orientation Day in Sullivan Court, and the seniors walk the same pathway to accept their diplomas as official graduates, signifying the full circle of their journey at Santa Catalina. Mrs. Gaughf shared that her “favorite tradition by far is graduation. It’s such an iconic event for any Santa Catalina alumna. Graduation has not changed at all since I was a student. In fact, every time I attend I feel as if I could jump right back and do it all over again!”


Catalinan, 1980.

As the years go by, new traditions are formed as the stack of yearbooks grows with the weight of memories made at Santa Catalina. Through The Catalinan yearbook, Lamplighter, and word of mouth, the Santa Catalina community continues to honor the traditions that characterize the school as much as the buildings themselves. Composer Gustav Mahler once said: “Tradition is not to preserve the ashes, but to pass on the flame.” Ultimately, Santa Catalina’s traditions are the culmination of the stories which form our expanding history. 

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