The 2010 dragon passes by McGraw Tower

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Fueled by first-year architecture students, the March celebration has been roaring on the Hill for 120+ years

By Lindsay Lennon & Beth Saulnier

Move over, bunnies and leprechauns: on East Hill, the other spring holidays take a backseat to a fantastic festival that’s quintessentially Cornellian.

For more than a century, the campus community has celebrated the advent of mid-semester break with Dragon Day—a rite of spring that’s also a rite of passage for first-year architecture students.

Over the generations, the occasion has been marked in more or less the same way. First, the architects spend weeks designing and building a magnificent mythical beast.

A very tall, and very green, dragon in the 1986 parade
Jolly green ... dragon?

Then, they triumphantly parade it across campus to great revelry, amid chants of “Dragon! Dragon! Dragon! Oi! Oi! Oi!”

Some years, engineering students create a phoenix to do “battle” with the dragon—symbolizing the traditional rivalry between the two professions—as the parade passes the Engineering Quad.

Physics students have even gotten in on the fun by crafting their own fantastical creature, a unicorn.

For decades—before the advent of environmental sustainability concerns and state limitations on open burning—the event culminated in the dragon being set ablaze, generally in the middle of the Arts Quad.

(Now, it’s merely disassembled, and the parts often reused.)

In the week or so leading up to Dragon Day, good-natured interdepartmental pranks have long been de rigueur—as have some less benign ones, including (as legend has it) the release of a green-painted pig in the Ivy Room in the mid-1960s, prompting a massive food fight.

(Note: Cornellians does not endorse this! Don’t release pigs or throw food! And while we’re at it: keep that TP on the roll where it belongs, not dangling from trees on the Arts Quad!)

Other traditions include a costumed “nerd walk” and the so-called “green streak”—which, in days of yore, may have involved actual streaking, but in recent decades has meant the more modest use of body paint.

A close view of the dragon in 2005
The beast gives side-eye in 2005.

However the details have evolved from one generation to another, the occasion remains fabulously festive.

The architects’ eye-popping talents are on vivid display: students dress up in elaborate homemade costumes, and the parade draws throngs of admirers—including many faculty and staff (and, often, their very excited kids), lining the route and gleefully following behind the beast.

The dragon itself—a massive creation stretching as much as 100 feet long and operated by a veritable army of architects—is a labor of Big Red love, representing untold hours of effort and enormous creativity.

Sometimes its design is fairly abstract, other times more representational—but it’s always a huge hit with the crowd.

“Our college is such a small section of Cornell, but this is such a major event,” notes Jenn Michael, AA&P’s senior director of student services. “I think alumni really appreciate that students are carrying on something that’s been around for a long time and are still super dedicated to it.”

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Alumni really appreciate that students are carrying on something that’s been around for a long time and are still super dedicated to it.

Jenn Michael, AA&P’s senior director of student services

Dragon Day traces its roots to none other than the namesake of Cornell’s student union: AA&P alum Willard Straight 1901, who founded it during his senior spring as a venue for celebrating architecture on the Hill.

Originally observed on St. Patrick’s Day, it involved decking out Lincoln Hall (then the college’s home) with shamrocks, orange-and-green banners, and—later—serpents, representing the beasts that St. Patrick drove out of Ireland.

In the 1950s, serpents evolved into dragons, and the event became the joyful jamboree beloved by modern-day alums.

Since 2013, Dragon Day has been celebrated the Friday before Spring Break—this year, it’s March 31—due to a change in the academic calendar that shifted the break to the last week of March.

Dragon Day traces its roots to none other than the namesake of Cornell’s student union: AA&P alum Willard Straight 1901.

(For decades prior, the event had taken place on St. Patrick’s Day or the day before Spring Break, whichever came first.)

Sadly, Dragon Day had to be skipped for two years due to COVID—but it came roaring back in 2022, with a stripped-down, two-headed beast constructed of recycled materials, including repurposed paper and wooden pallets.

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“It’s so great for students to be able to say that they’re doing the same thing that people did 100 years ago,” Michael observes.

“They’re so talented and creative, and they really take it seriously. They know they’re carrying on this tradition that’s been around for a very long time.”

Top: The 2010 dragon passes by McGraw Tower. Archival images in this story courtesy of the College of Architecture, Art & Planning; recent dragons and campus scenes photographed by Cornell University photographers.

Published March 14, 2023

What’s your favorite Dragon Day memory?


  1. Chris Georgaroudakis, Class of 1986

    From past experiences, it was great to see students driving out ‘spirts’ and showing the power of the AAP’s tradition and wag and wager themselves all over campus. Hope same this time!

  2. Elizabeth A Cowles, Class of 1982

    Dragon Day is awesome! We had great views from the 2nd floor of Stimson Hall biochemistry lab. The Statler Hall staff was perplexed one year when the sheets disappeared; the sheets reappeared as green dragon parts. The engineering students attempted to attack using huge pencils and calculators.

  3. Frank Foehrkolb, Class of 1976

    Was Dragon Day cancelled in the mid-70’S? I was Engr. Class of ’76 and was involved in a lot at Cornell. I had never heard of Dragon Day till years later.

    • Jane Brown, Class of 1984

      Dragon Day was alive and well in the early ’70s. I was a grad student in the Landscape Architecture program and remember it well. We were only spectators as it was completely the work of the architects. I recall one year the dragon dropped a lot of brown blobs as it passed the Engineering quad. No love lost between architects and engineers.

  4. Alden (Tad) Mann, Class of 1965

    I was in the 1965 Class of Architecture and our green Dragon walked around the quat painting anyone not weaning green. Many of us were arested by campus police, but we all loved it completely. We later got together with prior classes to host pranks on Harvard, Yale, Penn and Columbia and painting their students green, we also loaded Yale’s new architecture school with a thousand crickets in an overnight foray…..I loved my time at Cornell and am living here again, now at 79 years old and I love the association. Tad Mann, Class of ’65, graduated ’66 and worked as an architect in New York and Rome, designed the New York City Police Headquarters and won a Progressive Architecture Magazine design Citation for Housing in Queens…… I love it all….

    • John Jordan, Class of 1965

      I remember it well and enjoy reading about the current creations. Good to hear from you.

  5. Will Devine

    There have been many great (and a few lackluster) dragons over the years, but in my mind, they all pale in comparison to the Phoenix that ‘flew’ by being suspended from the crane being used to build Duffield Hall at the time. That was a great use of available resources on the part of the Engineers.

    • Brian Beeners

      That idea was my suggestion. I was the advisor to both the Arch. students and the Phoenix society that year. It was an opportunity not to be missed. Glad you enjoyed it!

  6. Randall Nixon, Class of 1977

    As a member of the track team, I couldn’t count on attending Dragon Day because we were always traveling the day before spring break to attend track meets in other parts of the country. However, during my junior year (1977), I was injured, and I stayed on campus to get rehab.
    The day before Dragon Day, I was in Carl Sagan’s class in Old Rusty. Sagan was lecturing about the possibility of exotic life on other planets when — as if on que — the dragon rushed down the stairs to the lecturn, danced around Sagan several times, and disappeared up the opposite flight of stairs. Sagan, without missing a beat, continued in his unique voice, “as I was saying, there could be exotic and unique creatures in other parts of the universe!” It was an utterly precious moment, one that as a Cornellian I will never forget.

    • Jill Baer, Class of 1976

      The Carl Sagan story! I audited that class. Thanks so much for bringing that memory back to me!

      • Randall Nixon, Class of 1979

        Thanks! I remember telling my mother that Carl Sagan was my astronomy professor. She replied, “do you mean the funny talking man who’s on the Johnny Carson Show?”

    • Justin Fisher, Class of 1971

      Carl Sagan was a professor to remember! I had a seminar class with him that is a highlight of my Cornell years.

  7. Kimberly Dowdell, Class of 2006

    This was one of the highlights of my Cornell experience. Dragon Day 2002 was the best!

  8. Mark Dunn, Class of 1985

    It was like an Architecture class’ Pride Parade in which the entire class participated. Our year we divided into teams so as not to have “too many cooks in the kitchen”. I was on a team of 4 or 5 who self-appointed ourselves the dragon promoters. We painted sheets into banners and hung them all over campus during the week leading up to the parade.

    We hung “It’s Green and it’s Coming” flag/banners atop Rand Hall, a 20’ street light at the gorge bridge, and our coup was to sneak onto the roof of the engineering building and proudly erect a pole with our banner.

    We also created papier-mâché brown dragon dung balls that were deposited on the engineering quad as the tail of the dragon passed by. It was a hugely festive event.

  9. Jessica Woo, Class of 1993

    I forget exactly why, but in 1990 the dragon started as an egg. It was my freshman year, so I was new to the tradition, but there was a lot of buildup to Dragon Day that year (was there an egg on the Arts Quad? I forget now!). The next year, the dragon started out floating in Beebe Lake!

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