marked the centennial anniversary of one of Northwestern's biggest and
lost traditions: the annual alumni candle lighting ceremony. Given the
near-total obscurity in which this NU tradition now resides, it's hard
to believe that three generations ago this ceremony was considered
Northwestern's defining tradition, a curious hallmark of the university
that demanded national news coverage.
The annual ceremony had its origin in the late 1800s, during alumni
events celebrating the May 31, 1850 conceptual founding of the university.
NU's founders first met to discuss the university in 1850, but the
school would not be chartered until January 28,1851, the date now
considered NU's founding. Alumni initially hosted an annual
Northwestern Night party every May. This spawned the candle lighting
ceremony that alumni would hold across the country.
Here is a timeline of the rise, peak, and fall of NU's most widespread tradition.
Northwestern had begun to use candles during commencement before 1907.
The University and the Alumni Association formally began the
Northwestern Night annual celebration in May 1913. By 1915 a few alumni club chapters began lighting candles as
part of their Northwestern Night festivities.
Upon the recommendation of NU president Abram W. Harris, who requested
alumni light a candle "in memory and in honor of Alma Mater,"
Northwestern Night became the setting for a new candle lighting
ceremony. Dr. O.H. Maclay, class of 1897, had the initial idea that "on
a given night the alumni throughout the world should pay homage to
their alma mater. Glenn Frank and John Burg developed the idea, and
President Harris contributed the first suggestion of the picturesque
candle lighting ceremony."1 The ceremony used three purple candles (representing the school's past, present, and future) and a detailed ritual, including
singing Northwestern songs. Fifty-nine clubs across the country took
part in this first ceremony throughout the final week of May 1916.
In Saratoga Springs, New York, over 100 alumni attended the first
candle ceremony for the local club and heard alumnus and former
presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan offer his thoughts on the
state of education. After the candle lighting, Bryan said, "The
question is not how far will this candle throw its light, but will it
shine every hour of the year. The lighting of this candle is a
beautiful custom and Northwestern and Garrett graduates must let their
William Dyche spoke at the Rockford, Illinois, chapter's candle
lighting, held at the Imperial Hotel, telling the crowd of the new
buildings recently erected on campus and planned (it's not known if he
discussed any ideas for a new stadium).
The new ritual was not only observed coast to coast, but at sea as
well. On the steamship Empress of Japan several alumni lit the ritual
candle 1,000 miles west of San Francisco. NU president Harris made
contact with them via wireless and communicated his greetings.
Several of the participating clubs suggested improvements to the
ritual, including adding the University Hymn (Quæcumque Sunt
Vera) to the ceremony's songs and passing to each group a small twig
from the same branch of a tree on NU's campus, from which the clubs
could all light their candles.
its successful debut year, the candle lighting ceremony was not
repeated in 1917, due to America's entry into World War I. The ceremony
returned in 1919.
the early '20s Northwestern Night had transformed into University Day,
and the candle lighting ritual had become even more popular, celebrated
"from Nanking, China, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; from points in India
to New York, Chicago and St. Louis."3 The Los Angeles club
hosted over one hundred alumni for its annual ceremonies in this
period. In 1922 NU president Walter Dill Scott addressed the scattered
clubs by telegram. Northwestern professors traveled across the country
to provide lectures to some of the events.
1924 the candle ceremony, including its songs and accompanying
presentations, was broadcast on WMAQ in Chicago for a one-hour special
event. The relatively new radio station could be heard through much of
the midwest, and its longwave signal could be picked up across the
country. Songs were performed by a live band in the studio, and several
Chicago dignitaries provided speeches. WMAQ and WLS would continue to
provide coverage for NU's candle ceremony for most of the next two
the first time, students joined alumni in the candle ceremony. Most of
the on-campus fraternity and sorority houses took part in the formal
ritual, which now had a scripted version. The scripted ritual, written
by Bishop George Craig Stewart, Dean Ralph B. Dennis, and Dr. Horace
Smith, would be used for 13 years before being revised.
Students wrote poems for the occasion, including this one, simply titled "Candle Lighting":
"Quaecumque sunt vera--"
The purple candles glow
And in my heart's an answer
To those tapers burning low.
"Quaecumque sunt vera--"
O Northwestern, now to you
I pledge my faith and loyalty
"Whatsoever things are true--"
to the growing use of the ritual was not universally positive. The
Daily Northwestern was particularly critical, calling the ceremony
"slop": "Certainly one must stifle his sense of the ridiculous in order
to join in such bombastic expressions of devotion." By the summer of
1925, the Daily was calling for the ritual to be abandoned, calling it
"Philistinism that ought not to be associated with an educational
institution."5 Despite the Daily's protests, the ritual continued to increase its popularity in the next few years.
president Scott lit for the first time the massive new purple candle
that would become the centerpiece of the candle ritual for years. It
was "a huge purple candle, four feet tall and six inches in diameter,
large enough to last more than 100 years."6 The new candle
was lit in a special ceremony in the cupola of the Old College
building. Horace Goodrich, son of NU co-founder Grant Goodrich and one
of the first students to graduate from Northwestern in 1859, was the
guest of honor and the donor of the new candle.
Scott and Goodrich with the Grand Candle, 1928.
Image published in the Daily Northwestern
the early 1930s, the candle ceremony was receiving national press
attention as a ritual "unique to the university and the country." The
Daily had moved from derision to active participation, splashing the
candle ceremony across its front page:
Despite the steadily increasing popularity of the event with alumni,
the student participation in the ritual ebbed by 1930, and
undergraduate student groups eventually abandoned the event.
Radio carried the candle lighting ceremony, "one of Northwestern's most
cherished traditions," live on a nation-wide network hookup. Presidents
of NYU and USC joined President Scott in addressing the nation, and the
lighting ceremony had become far more elaborate, with Scott pushing a
button from the radio studio that gave the signal to staff in the Old
College cupola (now called "Candle Tower") to light the huge candle
electrically. By the mid '30s, between 40,000 and 50,000 Northwestern
alumni and students around the world took part in the ceremonies each
NU revised the formal ritual, making it more concise.
1939 ceremony was Scott's last, and the day was dedicated to honoring
the retiring NU head. Former President Herbert Hoover spoke at the
Candle Lighting Song from the 1920s and 1930s
radio and press coverage of the candle ceremony continued into the
'40s. 50,000 alumni continued to meet annually to light their own,
smaller, versions of NU's Grand Candle, and university presidents (such
as Cal Tech's Robert Millikan) made their own addresses to the national
NBC audience during NU's event.
In late 1944
Northwestern moved the candle ritual from May to the Sunday closest to
January 28, to coincide with NU's Founders' Day celebration.
the 1941 ceremony, Northwestern went all-out, erecting a 15-foot mock
candle in Deering Meadow, which it lit daily for a week before the
The ceremony itself had been moved by 1941 from Old College to Cahn
Auditorium, at which 1,200 students and alumni participated. Again,
more than 50,000 alumni took part worldwide.
The ceremony had taken on a wartime tone by the early '40s, and was
used to honor NU's alumni and students engaged in the military efforts
at home and abroad. A fourth candle, the "Candle of Northwestern
Patriotism" was added to the ritual from 1943 to 1945. The number of
clubs participating in the ceremony during World War II swelled to over
100, nearly doubling the original number.
By the late 1940s the ceremony was no longer carried nationally on
radio, but WGN continued to broadcast the event to the Chicago area.
The ceremony also continued to attract prominent speakers, including UN
assistant secretary-general William Agar in 1948.
five feet tall, NU's Grand Candle by 1950 was reduced to four feet
through 21 years of use. However, the University revised the candle's
expected lifetime, increasing it from 100 years to well over 150 years,
given the one hour per year that the candle was then lit. "No longer
reserved for Old College, the candle is now kept in a metal cylinder
in the Administration building when not in use. Its thick wick is so
hard that it must be saturated with lighter fluid before each service."7
The 1951 ceremony took on greater significance due to the University's
Centennial celebration. The '51 and '52 candle ceremonies were
considered the bookend festivities for NU's Centennial observance.
Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick was the 1952 featured
speaker. The school again revised the expected lifespan of the Great Candle, claiming that it could last another 200 years.
Centennial Founders' Day events in Cahn Auditorium.
President Miller speaks next to the Grand Candle. [Syllabus Photo]
clubs across the country continued to hold their own candle ceremonies
on Founders' Day, but the event was no longer covered by the radio.
Despite the roaring popularity of the candle ritual for nearly four
decades, by the mid-'50s interest in the event declined rapidly. NU's
Founders' Day included the Grand Candle in its celebration in 1956, but
it was dropped in '57.
1960s to the Present: Where Is the Candle?
According to a 1984 article in the Daily8,
the NU Alumni Association tried to revive the candle lighting event in
1963, but the revival was brief, and the candle remained unlit for
nearly two decades.
In 1981, the Alumni Association celebrated its 100th anniversary and
added the Great Candle to its anniversary celebration. The Association
discussed the possibility of again reviving the ceremony, but chose not
to do so. The school placed the candle in the John Evans Alumni Center,
where it stayed until the late 1980s. At some point in the '90s,
however, the candle went missing. Its fate remains a mystery.
In 2011 Northwestern tried to update the candle lighting
tradition by adding to the school's website a "virtual candle," which
alumni could "light" by clicking a link on January 28.
2016: The 100th Anniversary Revival
For the 100th
anniversary of Northwestern's unique tradition, HailToPurple helped to commission the casting of a replica of the Grand Candle. The Shadows Studio
in Denver, Colorado made a purple candle the same diameter as the
original Northwestern candle, with the same height that the candle
would have been after continuous use since its debut (still nearly three feet in
The candle was present at the April 9, 2016 celebration of A Day With Northwestern in Evanston, at Norris Center, for a one-time only exhibition, completing the first century of this Wildcat rite.
The centennial replica of Northwestern's Grand Candle,
on display at Norris Center, April 2016.
1. Ward, Estelle F., The Story of Northwestern University, 1924, Dodd, Mead & Co., p. 370.
2. Northwestern University Bulletin. Alumni Journal, Vol. 16, No. 41, June 30, 1916.
3. Daily Northwestern, May 18, 1922, p. 1.
4. Daily Northwestern, May 28, 1925, p. 2.
5. Daily Northwestern, July 21, 1925, p. 2.; ibid, Aug. 11, 1925, p. 2.
6. Daily Northwestern, May 2, 1928, p. 1.
7. Daily Northwestern, Jan. 26, 1950, p. 8.
8. Daily Northwestern, Jan. 27, 1984, tgif, p. 7.
Other NU History featured articles