The bonfire is one of the most memorable, and sporadic, of all traditional Princeton activities, celebrating that the Princeton football team had the best record in a single season among the Big Three — Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
The first recorded bonfires actually occurred to celebrate victories in baseball, not football. As football became more popular, and as gridiron competition with Yale and Harvard became regular events, the bonfire symbolized capture of the Big Three Title, a mythical award that bestowed bragging rights to the victor.
According to tradition, the construction of the bonfire rested with the Dink-wearing freshmen. It was their responsibility to gather wood from the surrounding area, often aided by townspeople and campus construction workers. Once a tall pyre was built on the center of Cannon Green, the final adornments usually included an outhouse and an effigy of John Harvard or a Yale Bulldog, or both.
The event was traditionally held on the Friday preceding the final game of the season, as both celebration and pep rally. The actual orchestration of the event was somewhat loose, often consisting of a few words from the football captain, some cheers, lively music from the Band and the blazing conflagration.
From 1950 until 1966 there were seven bonfires. The most recent bonfire was in 2021. Those who have experienced it will tell you that the sight of Nassau Hall, West College and Whig and Clio Halls, all bathed in a warm golden glow of victory, will stay with you all your life. Archival images of the bonfire through time convey the excitement of the event.