From my somewhat less-than-glorious days of high school up until now, I have always figured any event related to "Homecoming" to be in celebration of the return home of a football team; after all, football has been the main draw surrounding all Homecoming festivities since the beginning of time (roughly 1769, I am told). I have repeatedly envisioned almighty gridiron warriors, road-weary and battle-tested, returning finally to the friendly confines of their home field and adoring fans to fight for the honor of their school in an all-important match-up against a rival pigskin powerhouse.
However -- and stop me if you can predict my point -- our football team doesn't seem to have much of a trek back to Hanover after playing their hearts out in a loss to Lehigh last week at Memorial Field. Also, although Dartmouth is up against a formidable Harvard squad this weekend in a game that will no doubt influence Ivy League standings, the usual talent level of opponents scheduled for Homecoming rivals that of a mob of confused flightless birds. This leads me to believe that either whoever made the schedule for Dartmouth Football has no inkling of tradition (or a very short attention span), or there is some other force, (besides uniformed violence in the name of good fun) that has come to be the inspiration for the splendiferous occasion we all know as Homecoming Weekend.
What exactly does Homecoming signify then? (I could go ask someone in the Administration, but philosophical inquiry is much more fun by any standard.) In the limited experiences of most of us, the answer to this question may very well have been shaped by numerous encounters with the ever-popular Homecoming activity known in some circles as "drinking until at least four out of the five senses no longer work." However prevalent such an activity may be, it does not serve to make Homecoming unique; activities like it are dutifully practiced on many other notable weekends, including "all of them." And even weekdays.
I am thus led to believe that it is alumni of Dartmouth who help to give this special weekend its name, through their ritualistic exodus back to the College on the Hill this same time every year. Looking at Homecoming holistically, it is fairly obvious to see that whatever the justification, the ends of the celebration historically have been a) to watch our football team pummel the likes of Colgate, b) to have yet another excuse to pass out from alcohol, and c) so that the College's already exorbitant savings account can be enlarged even more by alumni from all of the world who donate bills of denominations that exceed the Gross National Products of some small European countries.
As an idealist, I refuse to buy into (pun intended) the last of these reasons. In fact, I refuse to believe that any of the three, however rooted in tradition they may be, could be responsible for the significance of one of the singular events that make Dartmouth what it is. Through simple observation comes this realization.
It is no secret that Dartmouth students have a certain fondness for griping; many of us feel that it is our right. However, when the annual bonfire sets the Hanover sky ablaze in a hue that is reminiscent of dawn but decidedly green, complaints and fears drift out of the collective ethos like traces of smoke into the night. The essence inherent in being a part of the Dartmouth community permeates the air, our culture, and momentarily, our existences. What I am referring to is the idea that by being here we are part of something very special -- something that cannot be qualified by the tapping of kegs, or the arrival of alumni, or our football team taking the field in the hopes of starting another winning streak.
During Homecoming, Dartmouth temporarily sheds its identity as the home of a perceived out-of-touch Administration, incompetent Dining Services operation and severe lack of social options, and becomes a place to which we invite our closest friends to share in often bitter-cold revelry. For an instant, we take pride in being Green, even if such pride for many will be washed out of memory once Monday classes take up session, and the remains of the bonfire are haphazardly lost by the wind.
It troubles me not at all that neither I nor anyone I talked to knew the true meaning behind Homecoming Weekend. Instead, I will forever be in awe of what the College holiday has meant to me, and what sparklingly positive qualities of our community it so effortlessly brings out. For one long weekend, the quaint town of Hanover reigns triumphant in the middle of nowhere as our kingdom, a kingdom rich in autumnal color and, perhaps more importantly, the true feeling of home. And home, for whatever it's worth over a couple of days every fall, is where the heart shall always be.