This past weekend saw another day of students dressed in green and celebrating in a time-honored tradition. No, I'm not talking about St. Patty's Day, but Dragon Day at Cornell University. One of my favorite memories from my first year of college was the day before spring break, when I took part in a massive snowball fight on the quad before setting a giant dragon on fire. After all, if there's one thing a bunch of undergrads love, it's drinking and setting things on fire. Sadly, nothing is burned anymore on Dragon Day.
Dragon Day, for the uninitiated, began some time before people kept comprehensive records. Here's an official lesson from Cornell:
History has not made clear the time that the first Dragon Day (in contemporary tradition) was held, though it is safe to assume that it occurred sometime between 1897 and 1901 (the years which Willard Straight was on campus). How the first parade evolved into a rite of initiation for the freshman Architecture class -- ending with the burning of the dragon on the Arts Quad -- has also not been revealed. In an excerpt from a letter to Willard Straight's widow in 1920, the first parade is described: "One year, a 12ft St. Patrick was painted and hung on the side of the building [Lincoln hall] with a great 20ft long serpent chasing after him. In the afternoon, these were taken down, and carried in solemn procession around the campus." The letter goes on to mention that the College of Architecture Day events were at one point abolished by President Schurman (Cornell's third president) -- thus helping to establish the tenuous relationship that Dragon Day has come to have with the University administration.
Oh, that "tenuous relationship with the University administration." How many revered traditions aren't in some kind of similar relationship with the administration? Campus events seem to fall under one of a few categories:
1). Holy Shit, We Need Our Sports Team to Win
2). Our College Is in the Middle of Nowhere, and This Is How We Entertain Ourselves
3). I Need to Be Naked
4). Studying Has Not Given Me Good Grades, So Maybe This Will
I'm sure you all have your favorite traditions as well -- who doesn't? (I just read about MIT's pumpkin drop during Halloween. Awesome.) Traditions help bind a community together and I'm all about that. So why is there always this "tenuous relationship" between tradition and authority? Do leaders not want to keep their community strong and vibrant?
In our day and age of hyperbolic media and litigation, I understand why the powers that be would want to be so cautious. But isn't there a way to preserve tradition in a modern setting? Can't I have my cake and eat it, too? I'm not advocating for wanton destruction and reckless stupidity, but living in a bubble of fear is not really a life I want to live. A bit of healthy risk is why I explore the world, try out new things, and, yes, occasionally blow stuff up.
Unlike in the U.S., the biggest day for fireworks in the Philippines is New Year's. It was here that I first came upon the watusi -- not the dance, but a small stick of red awesomeness kids strike on the ground and watch crackle and sparkle. The watusi was my gateway drug into pyromania, and it was also how I learned to have a healthy respect for fireworks. That same night, one of my relatives from across town came to our house because of the terrible burns he had received on his arm. I had been about to throw a watusi at one of my female cousins (because she had cooties and obviously needed to be cleansed by fire) when I saw his arm. He recovered but my mind had been branded by that image. Fire is no joke and is to be respected.
If 10-year-old me could understand that, why do people think my college-aged peers can't? There will always be idiots out there, but I don't think we should play to that lowest common denominator. We need to find healthy and safe ways to continue traditions in our modern world so we can keep exploring and finding them. Because dammit, I want my dragon, and I want to keep burning it, too.
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