Campus Traditions and Customs
The Bonfire is one of the most memorable--
and sporadic-- of all traditional Princeton activiites. Like
many on-going traditions, its exact origins are lost in time,
but the first reported instances of sanctioned bonfires occurred
to celebrate victories in baseball, not football. In former
times, Yale and Princeton battled on the diamond at the conclusion
of the Alumni P-rade at Reunions, and a victory set off a
As football gained in popularity,
and as gridiron competition with Yale and Harvard became
a regular event, the Bonfire came to symbolize capture of
the Big Three Title, a mythical award that bestowed bragging
rights to the victor. However, it was quite possible to
conquer one opponent and then lose to the other, and as
a consequence, the celebratory Bonfire might appear only
sporadically, leaving subsequent generations of students
at a loss about the tradition and how to perpetuate it.
According to traditon, the construction
of the Bonfire rested with the Dink Wearing Freshmen. It was
their responsibility to gather wood from the surrounding area,
often aided in large part by townspeople and campus construction
workers. Once a tall pyre had been placed in the center of Cannon
Green, the final adornments usually included an outhouse and
an effigy of John Harvard or a Yale Bulldog, or both.
Also, by long tradition, this event
was to take place on the Friday preceding the final game of
the season, as both celebration and "pep rally." The actual
orchestration of the event was usually somewhat loose, frequently
consisting of a few words from the football captain, some
cheers, lively music from the Band, and the blazing conflagration.
Prior to the Bonfire of 2006, it had been more than twelve years since this spectacle had taken place. Many would welcome a more regular occurrence.
By Saturday morning, what had previously
been a tall pyre of wood was reduced to a smouldering circle
of blacken charcoal and ash, that miraculously disappeared
a few days later thanks to the attentions of the grounds crew.
During the powerhouse years of football,
almost every undergraduate class experienced a Bonfire at
least once during his career. From 1950 until 1966 there were
seven bonfires. However, since 1967, there have only been
four! One consequence of this infrequency is that the Institutional
memory has largely disappeared, and the 1992 Bonfire left
many shaking their heads in disappointment. Part of the problem
for this bonfire and its successor the following year can
be attributed to the insistence of certain members of the
Athletic Department that the event NOT occur on the
evening prior to the final game, but rather, on a weeknight
after the conclusion of the season. Apparently these sages
neglected to realize that this was also the abbreviated period
just prior to Thanksgiving Recess, when many students were
en route home. To further undermine the event, the football
team lost their final game-- and the season's championship.
And finally, Mother Nature failed to cooperate, raining out
the first scheduling of the event, and rendering its later
immolation less than satisfactory.
After the somewhat dismal execution
of what had heretofore been an extremely memorable tradition,
Sam Howell '50 took it upon himself to remind all Princetonians
of proper Bonfire Protocol:
- Schedule the Bonfire for the Thursday
or Friday following the Yale Game, and treat it as both
a Big Three celebration and a rally for the season finale.
- Assign the Freshman Class to collect
scrap lumber, crates, and pallets from University workers,
town merchants, and other local sources.
- Seat a stuffed bulldog in the outhouse
- Begin the festivities by unleashing
the Band to roust students from across campus.
- At the foot of Blair Arch, hold
a pep rally at which the head coach and team captain make
- Follow the anointed flarebearers
to Cannon Green for ignition.
It must also be noted that much has
changed in the legal and governance system since this tradition
was first initiated. Modern celebrants must also contend with
scheduling of Fire and Safety Officials from campus and Princeton
Borough. In addition, there have been suggestions for filing
appropriate Environmental Impact Documents, lest the Bonfire
also be cited for inadequate emmision controls.
That said, those who have been privileged
to witness a proper Bonfire will tell you that it is yet another
bit of Princetoniana that stays will you all your life, as
the entire campus seems huddled around the heat and light
of a massive campfire. Few can forget the sight of Nassau
Hall, West College, Whig, and Clio Halls all bathed in a warm
golden glow of victory, as they watch orange sparks float