A Tradition Built to Last

It happens every year. It’s one of our most famous, campus-wide events. It involves a parade featuring a dragon and a phoenix — both crafted from scratch. Anyone familiar with life at Cornell knows exactly what we’re taking about: Dragon Day. But how did Dragon Day “rise from the ashes” and trickle down to what it is today?

A Dragon Takes Flight

Sometime between 1897 and 1901, it all started with one student. Willard Dickerman Straight was a known prankster with a dash of architecture pride and passion for class unity. While history has not set in stone the first official Dragon day, it was during the time Straight attended Cornell, initially creating a holiday specifically for his fellow architecture comrades.

So what exactly did the first “Dragon Day” look like? An excerpt from a letter to Straight’s widow sets the scene. The answer: a lot like St. Patrick’s Day.

“One year, a 12-foot St. Patrick was painted and displayed on the side of the building (Lincoln Hall) with a great 20-foot long serpent chasing after him. In the afternoon, these were taken down, and carried in solemn procession around the campus.”

While the early stages of the tradition were inspired by the Irish holiday and its association with serpents, Dragon Day evolved during the 1950’s when those snakes “grew up.” As the holiday gained popularity, it became intertwined with many aspects of Cornell culture, even our academics! At one point, a two-week course offered the basics of machine shop — with Dragon Day being the hands-on application.

The Rise of the Rivalry

Now how did the College of Engineering eventually find a place as the dragon’s rival? While there is no definite answer — perhaps it was simply an opposition to a holiday originated solely for architecture students — the rivalry lives on. In fact, it took a while for the engineering students’ creation to reside in phoenix form. Early creations varied from a cobra, penguin to even a knight on horseback.

While the phoenix continues to serve as the hand-crafted competitor to the dragon, the campus holiday was officially sanctioned through the Department of Architecture in 1993 where students used resources in Rand Hall to build the dragon. While the rivalry continues to thrive between engineering and architecture students, it has taken the form of a creative competition.

There you have it. While taking on many different forms throughout Cornell’s history, the Dragon Day tradition remains. Today, it is celebrated as a team building effort and rite of spring for the entire community. Thanks, Willard Dickerman Straight!

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