The Princeton Reunions are an annual college reunion event held every year on the weekend before commencement at Princeton University. Known simply as "Reunions", this event brings back to campus upwards of 25,000 alumni and guests for a four-day celebration featuring large outdoor tents, elaborate costumes, sporting events, alumni and faculty presentations, fireworks, and bands from rock to swing.
A Princeton Companion places the advent of Princeton reunions shortly after the end of the Civil War. The 1890s (especially the University's 150th anniversary in 1896) saw increasing interest, although it was not until the 1950s that Reunions took on today's level of organization, particularly with respect to on-campus housing for returning alums.
The Alumni Parade, known today as the P-rade, is the capstone of the Reunions weekend. Held on Saturday, it is the last major event — save for the fireworks display (introduced in 1996 in celebration of the 250th year since the University's founding.) The 25th Reunion class heads the parade; they are led by the Princeton University Band, which plays traditional songs such as Going Back to Nassau Hall.
The P-rade then proceeds with members of each class from oldest to youngest, accompanied by spouses, children, family members, and even pets. Alumni of the Graduate School normally take the place of the 25th reunion in the sequence. In 2000 and 2001, to celebrate the centennial of the Graduate College, the Graduate School alumni marched immediately behind the 25th Reunion class. Each year, the University president honors the oldest returning alumnus by presenting him with a silver cane donated by the class of 1923. The bearer of that cane from 2002 to 2005 was Leonard Ernst '25, and in 2001 and from 2006 to 2012, the bearer was fellow '25 graduate Malcolm Warnock, who was 107 at his final Reunion appearance in 2012. Ernst, Warnock, and most older alumni are typically chauffeured along the parade route by golf carts, but in 2001, the then-96-year-old Warnock impressed everyone by walking the last segment of the P-rade, waving his cane toward an appreciative crowd. In 2016, cane recipient Joseph Schein '37 (who received the cane again the next year), walked the entire route with the cane at age 101.
Classes celebrating a major reunion (multiples of five—5th, 10th, and so on) often wear themed costumes, which have ranged from Roman legionnaires to firefighters and Uncle Sam lookalikes. Costumes and themes are often completely unrelated to Princeton or the year the class graduated.
The P-Rade begins on Nassau Street, enters the campus through FitzRandolph Gate in front of Nassau Hall, then proceeds through Cannon Green. Until the early 1990s, the route continued across McCosh Walk, through 1879 Arch, down Prospect Avenue, and finished on the baseball field. However, because of escalating public liability and insurance costs, the University moved the P-Rade route to stay only on the private property of the University. Some think the University also felt that too many alumni would stop off at their eating clubs on Prospect Avenue before finishing the P-Rade, and so it changed (and shortened) the route so that it does not leave campus. Currently, after crossing Cannon Green, the P-Rade proceeds down Elm Drive through the center of campus, and onto Poe Field. The Classes are arranged on both sides of the entire route, so that each cheers its elders, then falls in line to march past those younger. The P-rade ends as the graduating seniors race onto Poe Field under review of the President of the University, and are then formally welcomed as alumni/ae.
The 10th reunion group in the 1967 parade became part of Edward Said's critique of the West when Said discussed the Reunion as an example of the arrogant Western cultural scorn towards Arab peoples. In his extraordinarily influential 1978 book, Orientalism, Said criticized the reunion as typical of the "popular images and social science representations" of a "tendentious kind" into which "the Arab" is "continually being forced." Specifically, Said criticized reduction and scope, in his words:
"The costume for Princeton's tenth-reunion class in 1967 (which) had been planned before the June War. The motif—for it would be wrong to describe the costume as more than crudely suggestive—was to have been Arab: robes, headgear, sandals. Immediately after the war, when it had become clear that the Arab motif was an embarrassment, a change in the reunion plan was decreed. Wearing the costume as it had originally been planned, the class was now to walk in procession, hands above heads in a gesture of abject defeat. This was what the Arab had become. From a faintly outlined stereotype as a camel-riding nomad to an accepted caricature as the embodiment of incompetence and easy defeat: that was all the scope given the Arab."
An outdoor orchestra concert and an elaborate evening fireworks display set to music, first held to celebrate the university's 250th anniversary in 1996, but repeated every year since by popular demand, is held the Saturday evening of Reunions. This can be seen as a closing ceremony of Reunions; however, the Reunions parties do not officially end until 2 a.m. that night, and low-key brunches are often held Sunday morning, at which point Reunions Weekend fades into Commencement Weekend.
Unofficially, after the tents close, the party moves to the eating clubs on Prospect Avenue and will go until sunrise, especially Saturday night.
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