Most people have heard of the “Polar Bear Plunge” – a freezing dip into lake and ocean waters that chills you to the bone… and perhaps other, more sensitive parts of the body. Having participated in a few past plunges, and more recently in an unrelated November swim in a nearby lake, I will concede that while the whole ordeal is fun, it is more than a little bit crazy. I’m certain many other January swimmers would agree with me, particularly the ones that needed a little “motivation” in the form of peer pressure.
But since when has “crazy” ever stopped us from running around in costumes at night and demanding sugar from our neighbors as a particular fall tradition, or from spending incredible amounts of money on high explosives to launch into the air, never particularly far away from young children? And yet, these have become universally accepted and cherished events.
Granted, there’s a physical pain aspect to jumping into cold water notably absent from most other traditions, but is it really that bad? Unlike most other holidays, there’s no expectation for you to spend paychecks on gifts for countless friends, family and acquaintances, no imperative to spend hours toiling away on decorations you have stored in your basement for three weeks out of the year, and no social obligation to send candy, cards and/or flowers to someone. I’ll take a little cold water over those, thanks.
Why participate in the first place? Even before the plunge attained its more altruistic association it has today, it represents a fun, social event to do with friends – a sort of harmless dare to herald in the new year, and it makes for excellent stories afterwards. Not to mention the fact that it makes hot chocolate and hot cider taste ten times better. Beer too, if you’re over 21.
In the early 1990’s, however, many Polar Bear Plunge events began harnessing their popularity supporting a range of causes. In just one example from January 2011, according to the Huffington Post: “Polar Bears in Phoenix splashed in Buzzards Bay to honor victims of domestic violence and to raise money for a scholarship fund for high school seniors who major in social work, psychology or law enforcement. Participants raised $5,132, surpassing last year’s total of $4,500.”
Now we can have both. Like No-Shave November, (a.k.a. “Movember”), which started as a dare out of an Australian bar but since has been associated with prostate cancer awareness and fundraising, the Polar Bear Plunge can do something genuinely productive as well as being fun, however masochistically so.
Diving into icy water isn’t really a mainstream celebration yet, but I see no reason why we couldn’t change that. It has all the markings of a community-building holiday: opportunities for socializing, competition, sharing food and seasonal beverages and a little bit of craziness to give it some character. Even people who don’t want to swim can take part in and enjoy the event. After all, someone has to be the photographer, right?