From Bacchanal to the Banal: 351 Harvard Commencements

Courtesy HARVARD University archives

The Class of 1896 dances around the Class-Day Tree, the last year the ritual was practiced

The Harvard Commencement has been mostly a solemn affair for the last century.

From its podium, Henry Cabot Lodge, Class of 1861, declared the position that would defeat the League of Nations and George C. Marshall announced his plan to rescue Europe.

Economists, statesmen and women speak seriously from the steps of Memorial Church before a crowd of students, parents, professors and dignitaries all poised with the reverence due such a momentous tradition.

But Commencement historically has a sillier side.

After the punch, plumcakes and drunken Puritans of the 17th century were toned down during the 18th, revelry switched venues and Class Day became the focus during the 19th century, with its dances and wild scramble around the Class-Day Tree. Commencement unruliness during the 20th century showed a more radical side in the closing years of the 1960s.

Through its three and a half centuries the ritual has never lost its uneasy relationship with riotousness.

Loosening the Old Frocks

The Harvard Commencement was the only fun in town for the Puritans, by law.

Crowds would travel for days from the New England countryside to join the festivities around Harvard Yard.

“It was the great holidy of the Province and of the State, and not only of the State but largely of New England as well,” an anonmous 19th-century Harvard history reports.

The inns and taverns filled overflowed onto the streets (contemporary accounts describe accidental defenestration), the “which, for days before and after, were scenes of riot and debauchery,” in the words of one prim contemporary.

The ceremony itself was rather tame. After Harvard was founded in 1636, problems getting the college off the ground delayed the first Commencement until September 1642.

The first Commencement followed in the tradition of commencements at English universities, with orations in Latin and Greek and a formal dinner for 50 guests that included faculty, administrators, and all of the nine graduating seniors.

The offical ceremony was a harrowing experience for students.

Candidates for the A.B. degree delivered their Latin disputations on stage.