Pomposity, of course, has its place, but at Harvard an eccentric quirk, a naughty presumption to familiarity, even perhaps the audacity to view life through Kiwanian-colored glasses is regarded by the sedate, the haughty, the chic as being tres gauche. A return to childhood is in order.
The present indulges only in low-life wickedness. The thrill is gone, and little grey-haired adolescents--half-men--have overrun the Yard. A case in point: Class Day Exercises.
On June 11 sober seniors will convene behind Sever to attend Class Day Exercises. Why everybody continues to use the word Exercises is hard to say. Nothing much happens, except everybody gets bored and starts twitching about, hoping a thunderstorm will break and end the ceremonies early.
Admit it: Class Day Exercises are one big nothing. Now in the past, it was another story. Then people could laugh spontaneously and horse around a bit; they could enjoy themselves, indulge in inanities, and afterwards feel no remorse.
The coming of age in Cambridge is best exemplified by the atlenuation of Class Day, and in particular by the disappearance of the confetti battle. An exhibition of the Dionysian quality of man, a display of unchained frivolity, and a vision of uncommitted youthfulness, the Class Day confetti battle was a gathering of people for the express purpose of throwing confetti at one another according to the dictate of natural reason.
A fitting climax to a compendium of festivities at once serious and light-hearted, the confetti battle symbolized the perpetual struggle between the young and the old. Alumni, clad in outrageous costumes, staging pranks reminiscent of their undergraduate days, debunking the pious and scorning treasured icons, would assault members of the senior class with streamers, confetti, and any piece of available rubbish.
Yet note carefully: this was the old asserting its youthfulness, and youth had to fight back to maintain its right to be young. Today, of course, every young man strives to gain maturity before his time. But when hearts were light in summer's season, youthfulness was at a premium, and carried no generation's brand. Common property, it had to be defended to be possessed.
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More often than not, Class Day would begin with a full summer sun blazing over the Yard as the senior class marched to Appleton Chapel for baccalaureate services. Afterwards, to Sanders, sticky humid, where the class orator, odist, and poet gave their addresses; and once there formalities had been completed, the senior class marched to the Yard and an abundant spread.
In the early afternoon the Yard was closed to all but seniors. While alumni, led by the band, headed towards the the Stadium, seniors would hold Tree Day ceremonies, and then march there.
Seniors would cheer alumni; alumni would raise a whoop for undergraduates. Round the track the graduates would march. In 1821 the Class of '18 disguised themselves as bottles of "home brew," in memorium, so to speak. The focus of interest had shifted slightly by 1937, and some alumni, dressed in Bavarian costumes, paraded with posters announcing they had "A Code in our Heads," or simply stating that the "Blue Eagle is a Yale Bird."
Through time, Class Day ceremonies changed only slightly. Singing by the Glee Club, a popular event during the early part of the century, was abandoned during the twenties. Sometimes the 25th Reunion Class would present mock degrees, but there was no hard and fast rule about this. Of course, there was always the Ivy Oration and the presentation of the class banner to the freshman class by graduating seniors.
After the banner had been presented, Fair Harvard was sung, and then the confetti battle would ensue. Sometimes it rained, but nobody cared. When the battle was over the fighters exhausted yet thrilled by the pageantry, spectators would pick their way through the rubbish, dodging stray pieces of fluttering confetti, and adjourn to the baseball field for the Harvard-Yale game.
The Confetti Tradition
Traditions have a way of springing up suddenly, asserting their antiquity, and going unquestioned. Some of the earliest accounts of confetti battles refer to them as "traditional." Somebody had to throw the first handful of confetti, but who ever it was remains unknown. There are theories, of course, which account for the origin of the confetti battle. Some claim it originated when Tree Day rites were in fact Tree Day riots; others maintain that; pre-game rallies generated confetti throwing.
But nobody knows for certain when or why the confetti battle first appeared. It's existence, however, was a fact, taken as such, termed traditional, and permitted to pass unquestioned. After all, throwing confetti was fun, so why spoil it by asking absurd questions?
Of all the battles, perhaps the most colorful and best remembered took place in 1933, the year President Lowell retired.
Class Day that year, one observer reported, "had all the pomp and pageantry, the charm and beauty, the youth and color that has marked the occasion down through the sweep of the years. For Harvard was about to part with an old friend. It appeared difficult for the gathering to realize that Dr. Lowell wouldn't be with them on the class days to come, and they didn't seem to like it."
Lowell spoke to the Class Day audience about his dead cocker spaniel, Phantom. "He was a good old dog," Lowell said, speaking softly, almost to himself. "He was better known around here than I was.... I guess he loved Harvard as much as I did, and he was about as useful as I was."
When the confetti battle broke loose a few minutes after he had finished speaking, "sweethearts and relatives were forgotten as Dr. Lowell became the main target and the 76-year-old educator frolicked about like a small boy, hurling back the balls and papers as fast as he could pick them up."
It was the last class day for President Lowell, often described as the "ablest confetti man in the Yard." The "lasting impression" of one participant was that of Lowell, "his hat in his hand, confetti in his thin, gray hair, watching the merry makers leave the stadium. Finally, as if reluctant to leave himself, he turned and followed the crowd out of the giant athletic field.