This Cornell Ritual Is One Of The Weirdest College Traditions

Many colleges and universities have rituals, customs, and traditions dating back hundreds of years that often seem bizarre to anyone not associated with the school. Nonetheless, those traditions are beloved by students and alumni alike. One of the more unusual examples is Cornell University's Dragon Day, which dates back to 1901. Per Cornell's Department of Architecture, what became Dragon Day was started by Cornell student Willard Dickerman from the class of 1901, who believed there should be a specific College of Architecture Day. He chose St. Patrick's Day as the day to celebrate, and students hung green and orange banners and shamrocks on the building that housed the department. 

Eventually, the legend of St. Patrick driving snakes out of Ireland became part of the celebration, and representations of serpents showed up among the decorations. As reported in The Cornell Daily Sun, the celebration eventually started including pranks, including dyeing the snow on the campus grounds green and disrupting academic lectures. The celebration also started having themes, which sometimes included political commentary. In 1934, students constructed a giant beer stein in honor of the repeal of Prohibition; years later, the dragon sculpture was painted black in protest of the Vietnam War.

The exact date that the serpents "grew up" and the tradition evolved into Dragon Day is unknown, but it's generally thought to be sometime in the 1950s. The celebration also developed into a rivalry between the College of Architecture and the College of Engineering, with engineering students building their own float to compete with the dragon.

At Cornell University, it's dragon versus phoenix

Per an article from Cornell University's Medium account, the College of Engineering considered several float themes, including a penguin, a cobra, and a knight on horseback. Eventually, they settled on a phoenix to engage in friendly competition with the College of Architecture's dragon. The College of Architecture officially sanctioned Dragon Day in 1993, and the tradition has become interwoven with many aspects of Cornell life, including a machine shop introductory course with creating Dragon Day sculptures as the final project. However, there was also a darker side of Dragon Day that developed over the years. 

As reported by The Cornell Daily Sun, between the 1950s and the 1980s the rivalry between the architecture and engineering students got more intense, and would often erupt into violent brawls that would shut down Dragon Day festivities. In the late 1980s, the university hired Brian Beeners as Dragon Day advisor. According to Beeners, "They gave me this role as peacekeeper so I could help regulate it and dumb down the violence that was occurring." Under Beeners' leadership, "By communicating with the engineers and replacing violence with fun alternatives like water balloons, we were able to make Dragon Day safe and fun again." Further changes included banning the open burning of non-wood materials in 2009 — which ended the celebration's traditional bonfires — and prohibiting certain pranks.

Despite the dilution of certain aspects of Dragon Day, the tradition remains beloved. Student Sahir Choudhury from the class of 2021 told the Daily Sun, "You could say that in short, for me, Dragon Day was the reason why I chose Cornell over other architecture schools."