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The Dartmouth
April 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Dartmouth's rich traditions vary throughout the years

Stories of beloved Homecoming traditions lace Dartmouth's history, but these customs aren't as stable as they may seem. Over the years, Homecoming fixtures such as the bonfire, the freshman sweep, rushing the football field and the green light on Baker Tower have been altered, abolished or created in order to keep up with safety concerns and changing times.

In 1895, College President William Jewett Tucker conceived of an evening called Dartmouth Night in order to "promote class spirit and initiate freshmen into the community." Today, Dartmouth Night -- the evening before the Homecoming football game -- is still a time of freshman initiation and the celebration of class and school spirit.In its first few years, Dartmouth Night consisted of a long ceremony held in Dartmouth Hall, in which speeches were given and telegrams from alumni were read aloud. The marching band then led a parade outside, and the students watched fireworks and built a bonfire.

Although College President James Wright and others still give speeches, the night's activities now take place outside and center on the huge bonfire and the freshmen running around it.

In the late 19th century, Dartmouth students often built bonfires to celebrate athletic victories over rival schools. The significance of the single Homecoming bonfire developed much later. Even before it was an annual tradition, however, the bonfire began to take on certain characteristics that it still has today.

The tradition of having freshmen run around a bonfire as many times as the number of their graduating year started in 1904. In the fall of that year, Winston Churchill and Lord Dartmouth were visiting the College and witnessed the Class of 1908, mostly wearing pajamas, running around a great bonfire eight times.

That custom developed throughout the 1900s, as the bonfire became a less spontaneous and more planned event. By the mid-20th century, Homecoming was a tradition imbedded into Dartmouth culture.

Sometimes, however, events beyond Dartmouth control prevented the bonfire from taking place. During both world wars, the College curtailed Homecoming ceremonies out of respect for the troops abroad.

For a five-year period during the Vietnam War, the bonfire was not held due to a lack of interest on the part of the student body. And twice the bonfire was cancelled because of weather conditions -- in 1954 it was cancelled because of Hurricane Hazel, and in 1963, during the worst dry spell in 100 years, it was cancelled by order of the Hanover Police Department.

Despite these disruptions, the bonfire became one of the most important traditions at Dartmouth. Each year the freshman class would spend the week before Homecoming building a great structure with as many tiers as their class year, and on Dartmouth Night they would set it on fire and run around it that many times.

In the 1970s, safety concerns led to several new rules. The College took on the responsibility of overseeing the construction of the bonfire and regulating its shape and height.

The bonfire structure is now built according to a design, said to originate in the Thayer School of Engineering, that allows the structure to collapse inward as it burns, causing fewer threats to safety.

In addition, the number of tiers is limited to 60, instead of the 100 tiers of some bonfires in College history. Today's freshmen build extra tiers with popsicle sticks or tongue depressors so that the number still corresponds with their class year.

Even more safety restrictions were implemented in the early 1990s following a riot on the Green. Traditionally, the freshman class would spend a week building the bonfire structure, and some members of the class would stand guard over it at night to prevent upperclassmen from sabotaging it.

In 1992, however, tension between upperclassmen and freshmen reached a climax when over 600 students, many of whom were intoxicated, stormed the structure brandishing hockey sticks and baseball bats.

Now the building process takes place in only the last two days before Homecoming, and building ends at dusk each day. The structure is then lit and roped off, and Safety and Security officers patrol it until daylight.

In order to compensate for these new restrictions, a new tradition began in 1993 to give an outlet to the wilder side of Homecoming. This tradition is the freshman sweep, in which a mob of freshmen walks to every dormitory on campus, gathering all the class members as it goes. The freshmen then make their way down Main Street and end up on the Green for speeches and the bonfire.

Another more recent tradition is the green light on top of Baker Tower. This light is only lit on special occasions, including Dartmouth Night, when it can be seen shining onto the Green during the president's speech. This custom was formalized in 1975.

One technically discontinued tradition, that of rushing the football field during the Homecoming game, has stayed in the minds of many students despite being outlawed in 1986. It used to be customary for the freshman class to go on to the field during halftime to form their class numbers.

Eventually, this tradition grew into a more rowdy one, in which freshmen would storm across Dartmouth's side of the stands singing the Alma Mater, then run across the field and onto the opposing side's stands. In 1986, a group of freshmen doing this injured several spectators, and as a result the College outlawed it.