Spring break, that rite of passage to sunnier climates that breaks the winter doldrums, traces its roots to the ancient Greeks, but the modern version has more to do with college students enjoying a week off from studies.
Some families travel during spring school breaks, but most “Spring Break” headlines are dominated by an estimated 1.5+ million college students cutting loose with friends in beachy locales from Florida to Texas to Mexico.
“Through the tradition itself is relatively new, spring break is a common feature of college life for many American students, and some consider it to be one of the highlights of the collegiate experience,” says “The Story Behind Spring Break.
From Dionysus to "Where the Boys Are" to MTV, the history of spring break has been colorful, and sometimes controversial.
Spring Break Roots: The Original Greek Life
We associate spring break more with sand and tee’s than we do with Socrates, but the origins of spring break can be traced back to the Greek celebration of Dionysus.
How Stuff Works says the Greeks liked to blow off some steam each spring with a three-day awakening" dedicated to Dionysus, who just happened to be the god of wine and fertility.
“Called "Anthestreria" by the local teens, and their parents, it was a festival dedicated to Dionysus,” says The Atlantic. “For three days, people would dance, singers would perform, women would deck themselves with flowers, and Greek men would compete to see who could be the fastest to drain a cup of red wine.”
How Swimmers Made Florida the Spring Break Capital
The modern spring break made its first splash in the mid-1930s when college swimmers started migrating to sunny Florida for winter workouts in Fort Lauderdale.
“A swimming coach from Colgate University in frigid Upstate New York decided to take his team down to Florida for some early training at a brand-new Olympic-size pool in sunny Fort Lauderdale. The idea clicked with other college swim coaches and soon the spring training migration became an annual tradition for swimmers nationwide,” says How Stuff Works.
The popularity of spending a week in Florida each spring spread slowly, until it exploded in popular culture with Hollywood’s seminal spring break release, “Where the Boys Are”, in 1960.
Hollywood Opens the Spring Break Floodgates
Spring break was already increasing enough in popularity that TIME magazine published a story (“Beer & the Beach”) in 1959, but “Where the Boys Are”, boosted by the Connie Francis title song, introduced spring break to the world.
The movie was based on the book, “Unholy Spring” by Michigan State University English professor Glendon Swarthout, who wrote the novel after observing students on spring break in 1958.
“After "Where the Boys Are," the spring break floodgates were officially wide open. Seemingly overnight the numbers of college students visiting Fort Lauderdale over Easter vacation went from 20,000 to 50,000,” says How Stuff Works. “By 1985, an estimated 350,000 students mobbed Fort Lauderdale during spring break.”
I Want My MTV … Spring Break
As spring break got bigger, and rowdier in many quarters, it started to draw a backlash.
“Rowdy behavior led to at least 2,500 students arrested [in 1985], and the events surrounding spring breaks were finally shut down by local officials,” says The Story Behind Spring Break. “Drinking on the beaches was prohibited, and students were informed that they were no longer welcome to the city.
Alternatives emerged such as Daytona Beach and Panama City in Florida, South Padre Island in Texas, and Cancun in Mexico.
MTV began broadcasting spring break coverage in 1986 from Florida, fueling a surge of eager college students to partake in the festivities.
Those earlier numbers of 350,000 in Fort Lauderdale were eclipsed in Dayton Beach, with some 400,000 spring breakers, and then Panama City which drew 500,000 spring break attendees as recently as 2013.
“After a particularly nasty Spring Break in 2015, Panama City officials voted to ban all alcohol consumption on the beach, which has apparently drained the life out of the party,” says How Stuff Works.
Spring Break Trends: Meaning over Mayhem
There has been a trend towards spring break activities with a purpose.
Habitat for Humanity has been hosting an “Alternative Spring Break” since 1989 which allows college students to give back while on vacation. Some 7,000 participated in 2018.
“The beaches are definitely still popular … but so are trips that emphasize meaning over mayhem,” says How Stuff Works.
The USA Today says that the United Way started offering its own alternative spring break program in 2006 where students could help aid U.S. neighborhoods, with some 150,00 students doing service across 15 communities.
“Spring break has begun to evolve into something besides a week of partying,” said USA Today.