Illumination

Social on the Square and Illumination night have a long tradition at Oberlin College. This year, we bring that tradition to you.

It's Sunday evening, the day before Commencement. While members of the Oberlin community picnic and visit in Tappan Square, the park is undergoing a transformation. Grounds and custodial staff unload boxes from club cars containing roughly 1,600 paper lanterns and candles and start a well-orchestrated assembling machine.

It will take the 15-plus member crew two to three hours to place and light the candles on wooden blocks inside each lantern, hang them along the 2,400 feet of rope that was placed throughout the square the previous day, and reposition the lines.

7:30 p.m., time for Social on the Square to begin.

Small lines are formed in front of tents with vendors selling treats. The assortment of pies as well as locally produced ice cream and assorted beverages are provided for purchase by Oberlin IGA. A portion of the proceeds from this event are donated to Oberlin Business Partnership, the local chamber organization.

Popcorn pops in a popcorn maker.A person hands another person a piece of pie and ice cream on a plate.

Student groups often perform throughout the evening. Pictured below, a student in the competitive jump rope team, Jump, shows visitors at the social what he can do, while Associate Professor Justin Emeka and his students hold a Capoeira session.

8:30 p.m., and the sun is setting. The flames from lanterns are flickering now, and the colored shades are glowing brighter. Something magical is happening ... .

9:30 p.m., the sky has darkened. The energy in the square is electric, yet calming. Lantern gazing is in full effect. Illumination officially begins!

A performance in the gazebo always gets the crowd jumping. This open air concert is one of the best ways to end such a gorgeous night.

It's almost 11 p.m., and the crowd in Tappan Square seems a little distracted. Groups of people are beginning to drift over to the steps of Finney Chapel. It's time for OSteel to perform! The crowd in front of Finney gets larger, and the lanterns in the square become part of the backdrop. It's not long before almost everyone is dancing along to the Caribbean vibes of their favorite steel drum band. Meanwhile, a few yards away, grounds and custodial workers reemerge and in about an hour the lanterns in the square become an enchanted memory. Workers will spend another couple of days sorting the candles from the lanterns and neatly stacking them back in boxes ... Until next year. 

The Tradition of Illumination

The first illumination in Oberlin occurred in November 1860 to celebrate the election of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th president of the United States. However, the longstanding tradition began in May 1903 during the inauguration of Oberlin College President Henry Churchill King. Frederick O. Grover, professor of botany, helped mark the occasion by stringing and lighting Japanese lanterns around campus. The former Harvard professor suggested it after a custom he had witnessed of illuminating the Harvard Yard. The college purchased several thousand lanterns to string along the posts on campus and several streets of the town. Illumination night eventually became a tradition held during Commencement/Reunion Weekend. (Pictured is Illumination on Tappan Square in 1935.)

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