Traditional collegiate colleges like Oxford and Cambridge hold informal halls or dinners every evening (usually twice a day). Additionally, a couple of times a year they also have a formal hall, which requires the wearing of a gown.
What is an Informal Hall?
Oxford Informal Halls are basically dinners. Most Oxford University colleges hold two each evening. Students usually get their own food (the dinners are self-served) and the dinners happen early in the evening, so students can pursue other activities later. Other names for the informal hall are First Hall, Trough, Buttery, or Canteen.
What is a Formal Hall?
A Formal Hall is a formal meal held ceremoniously in the colleges and halls of Oxford and other collegiate universities. Students dress in formal attire and gowns to attend Formal Halls. Some Oxford colleges have elaborate traditions linked to the Formal Hall. For example, some say Grace before the meal, in some cases in Latin. Sometimes, academic gowns are compulsory. Other times students can wear formal wear such as a lounge suit. Oxford Formal Halls usually include a high table that is exclusive for the college’s Senior Common Room and its guests. This table is usually raised above the floor level although some colleges like Wolfson College and Linacre College have discontinued this tradition to promote equality.
Pennying: A 600 Year-Old Drinking Game
You might have heard of a drinking game called “pennying”. Pennying was actually invented in Oxford in the 14th century (yes, you read that right, this game is 600 years old!). The game has several rules, but the general idea is: A penny is put into “circulation” at the dinner. You need to slip a penny into someone’s drink and they cannot notice. If you succeed, they have been “pennied” and have to down their entire drink in one. Additionally, if you ask the person the year of the penny and they don’t know, in addition to finishing their own drink they need to chug down another one right then and there. The penny, then, goes back into circulation!
Are Oxford Halls like Harry Potter Hogwarts'?
This is something many people had asked about when visiting Oxford. In the Harry Potter movies, we see students have lunches and dinners at a hall, and use the space also for special occasions and feasts (like the sorting ceremony). Hogwarts Dining Hall was actually heavily inspired by Christ Church‘s Hall, so it’s safe to assume many aspects are shared as well. Of course, Oxford doesn’t have elves working in the kitchen, as far as we know!