Time-honored traditions are an important facet of life at every university. Usually each school has its own mysterious and quirky rituals that bind classmates together in ceremony. However, the one tradition that seems to be a part of every university is homecoming. If you think about it too much, you will begin to feel that this event doesn’t really make much sense. It is hard to find a uniting theme in the hodgepodge of football, alumni, parades, floats, dances, kings and queens, tailgates, picnics and performances, all of which characterize a homecoming. How is it that this almost universal tradition came about in the first place?
As with most traditions, many different groups claim responsibility. One of the first homecoming-like traditions came from, Dartmouth College. In 1888, after a baseball victory Dartmouth students built a massive bonfire on campus that, in the words of student newspaper The Dartmouth, “disturbed the slumbers of a peaceful town, destroyed some property, made the boys feel that they were men, and, in fact, did no one any good.” A few years later the administration comandeered the event and billed it as a celebration of prestigious alumni and school spirit — no doubt negating most of the rebellious fun of it in the process.
The first instance of homecoming we would recognize today can be traced back to big, mid-western schools in the early 20th century. Baylor University held a celebration centered around a football game against Texas Christian University in 1909, though it did not become an annual homecoming event until 1915.
The event featured a parade and alumni reunions drawing several thousand to the school. The following year, two seniors at the University of Illinois came up with the idea of a homecoming to encourage their football team to beat their longtime rivals.
However, official recognition for the first homecoming event is generally given to the University of Missouri — possibly for no other reason than that Trivial Pursuit and “Jeopardy” decided on it. The Missouri Homecoming of 1911 is the template that most other universities have used to construct their celebrations.
The Missouri Homecoming brought more than 10,000 alumni and fans to the campus and the school still boasts the largest homecoming in the country.
Why the concept of homecoming came about, when it did, and why it took the form that it did are questions that no one can answer. Perhaps it was the age of the automobile that allowed alumni the luxury of easily going back to their school and also permitted the construction of large parade floats. Maybe it was the growing popularity of football, a sport that became a college tradition around the same time, or maybe it was just pure chance. Whatever the case, the concept of homecoming quickly took root in colleges around the country.
The College of William and Mary held its first homecoming in 1926. It included a football game against George Washington University, which the Tribe won, and a cross country meet with the University of Richmond and George Washington, which the Tribe also won. The event was billed as a complete success and homecoming became a part of the tradition of the College. Each year it seems more and more activities were added to the schedule, and it became a very large event bringing hundreds of alumni back to Williamsburg.
Over time, though, homecoming has lost some of its grandeur and novelty. The celebrations back in the ’40s and ’50s seemed to be a much bigger deal than they are today. The parades were long and the floats impressive: In 1941, Phi Kappa Tau’s float featured a realistic small plane, which represented that year’s rival, the Virginia Military Institute, crashing in a forest. An earnest Flat Hat reporter even went so far as to compare the importance of the College’s homecoming to the Great Chicago Fire.
This weekend I doubt anyone will view our homecoming activities with much seriousness. Hopefully we will all simply relax, have fun, and not think too much about a tradition that doesn’t always make much sense.
E-mail Ed Innace at [email protected]