Commencement Day, beginning with Harvard, was always a proud moment for New England’s Puritans, who took to celebrating it as a holiday.
Commencement Day was one of the few holidays they celebrated: Training Day and Election Day were the others, plus sporadic Thanksgiving and Fast days.
“The holy days of the English Church were as a stench to the Puritan nostrils,” wrote Alice Morse Earle in Customs and Fashions of Old New England. Puritans despised Christmas, imposing fines of five shillings on anyone who celebrated it. They frowned on Maypoles on Mayday, shunned pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, celebrated Easter like any other Sunday and worked on New Year’s Day.
Edward Ward, in his book Boston in 1682 and 1699: a Trip to New-England and a Letter from New-England, wrote the Puritans only celebrated three holidays:
Election, Commencement, and Training-days, are their only Holy-days; they keep no Saints-days, nor will they allow the Apostles to be Saints
The Puritans, after all, respected education. They believed the church would not survive if higher education disappeared. Earle wrote that Commencement Day was a source of deep interest, of pride and of recreation. Judge Samuel Sewall noted in his diary the day at Harvard: the exercises, the dinner, the wine and the Commencement cake. After 1730, Commencement Day was set for Friday so there would be enough time for frolicking. John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, described the 1642 Commencement Day at Harvard in his History of New England:
Nine bachelors commenced at Cambridge; they were young men of good hope, and performed their acts, so as gave good proof of their proficiency in the tongues and arts. The General Court had settled a government or superintendency over the college, viz. all the magistrates and elders over the six nearest churches and the president, or the greatest part of these. Most of them were now present at this first commencement, and dined at the college with the scholars’ ordinary commons, which was done of purpose for the students’ encouragement, etc., and it gave good content to all.