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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
THE custom of observing Class-Day dates back to a very early period in the history of the College. Indeed, like many of our observances, neither the time when it began nor the circumstances under which it arose are definitely known.
The first mention we find of such an observance is that about the year 1760 the students had become so boisterous in their demonstrations on that day that the College authorities attempted to abolish the custom, which had then been in existence a considerable time. For some unknown reason, the attempt did not succeed; but the day rather grew in importance, and has continued to do so, until in late years it has come to be preeminently the day of festivities and rejoicing.
A diary kept by a graduate of 1793 gives an interesting account of the exercises of the day* at that time, and shows how great the change in its observance has been:-
(June 20th, Thursday.)
"This day, for special reasons, the valedictory poem and oration were performed. The order of the day was this: At ten the class walked in procession to the President's, and escorted him, the professors, and tutors to the Chapel, preceded by the band playing solemn music.
"The President began with a short prayer. He then read a chapter in the Bible. After this he prayed again. The poem was then delivered, after which the singing club, accompanied by the band, performed William's Friendship. This was succeeded by a valedictory Latin oration. We then formed, and waited on the government to the President's, where we were very respectably treated with wine, etc.
"We then marched in procession to-'s room, where we drank punch. At one, we went to Mr. Moore's tavern, and partook of an elegant entertainment, which cost 6/4 apiece. Marching back to the College-grounds, we shook hands and parted, with expressions of the sincerest tokens of friendship."
From this and subsequent records, it seems that at this time, and for many years after, the students celebrated their graduation by a grand symposium, passing the greater part of the day in the Yard, scattered in groups under the trees, enjoying the last hours of college life by drinking punch, smoking, and talking over the events of their college days.
It has only been within the last dozen or twenty years that the custom has been observed in anything like the present style.
*It seems that at that time it had not received the distinctive name of Class-Day.
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