• Department of Psychology
  • Department of History
  • Department of Africana Studies
Features & Articles

Pitt Celebrates an Old Tradition in a New Way

The strength of Pitt is in its traditions—and in its ability to reinvent them.

This year marks a celebration of the 100th annual Lantern Night and, like many events, it looks a little different this time around. But this isn’t the first time the tradition has evolved.

The inaugural Lantern Night, which welcomed new women students to the University in 1921, featured women “dressed in nightgowns and white paper caps carrying Japanese lanterns” as they each marched with an older classmate. According to Pitt Weekly, after the festivities, fruit punch, animal crackers and lollypops were served.

Over the last century, some years, the lanterns were made of paper, other years tin. Sometimes the procession started at a local home; other years, it began in Heinz Chapel.

And this year, each incoming residential student, not just the women, will receive their own LED candle from the Pitt Alumni Association to start a yearlong celebration. As usual, festivities will commence on the night before the first day of classes. But this year, the Cathedral of Learning will also be lit up to symbolize the light of learning. On-campus students will place their lit candle in their windows at sundown on Tuesday, Aug. 18, and beyond. As more students arrive to Pittsburgh, the lights of learning in windowsills will continue to grow.

“I don’t think there’s a more significant symbolism,” said Nancy M. K. Merritt, vice chancellor for alumni relations. “The lantern can mean so many different things to various generations. Some people look at it as a guiding light, a spark of curiosity, the yearning for truth and knowledge. I just don’t think there’s any better symbolism we could have for a university.”

She added: “Traditions are important because they create a common experience between generations of alumni. They strengthen the bond, string us together. It’s up to the alumni. They’re the torch bearers.”

The alumni association is planning more celebratory events throughout the 2020-2021 academic year.

a woman seated lighting a candle

Many generations, many flames

At last year’s Lantern Night ceremony, Lee Brun Johnson (A&S ’58, SOC WK ’77) and Regina Munsch (ENGR ’20) hit it off right away, despite their age difference.

Johnson was there to be the flame bearer for her granddaughter, Ellie Cook. Her own daughter, Lee Carol Cook, watched proudly, remembering how her mother would tell the story of her dad leaving the steel mill with his paycheck every Friday, “and riding the streetcar to the bursar’s office at Pitt to pay her tuition, then taking the tuition receipt to show his friends at the mill.”

Due to a steel mill strike, Lee Brun Johnson had to drop out of Pitt and go to work as a nurse’s aide in order to earn enough money to return to school, which she did—eventually becoming a social worker on Thomas Starzl’s transplant team.

a glowing LED candle that says 100th anniversary of Lantern Night
When Ellie Cook came to Pitt last year, Lee Carol wanted her mother to be her daughter’s flame bearer in the 99th Lantern Night ceremony, but wasn’t sure how it would work with her mother’s wheelchair. “The organizers twisted themselves inside out” to make it happen, she recalled.

Then-student Munsch—whose mother Roslyn (CAS ’80) and sister Maria (ENGR ’14) also graduated from Pitt—helped push Johnson’s wheelchair, and two legacy Pitt families connected.

“I swear, after Regina and she bonded, she was just like, ‘Well, now you’re part of the family.’ She loved Regina,” said Lee Carol.

“To see this young woman take such care of my mom and laugh with her and share her stories about being a Pitt student with her, and then during the ceremony pushing my mom’s wheelchair so she could light Ellie’s candle—she was present, she was warm, it really almost just made me cry.”

For Ellie Cook, the ceremony was so meaningful that, when her grandmother passed away in January, she paid tribute to her by walking with her lantern at the funeral service.

And when the spring semester went online due to the pandemic in March and Ellie’s parents came to take her home, “It was like somebody was holding us and saying, ‘You’re gonna be fine. You’re at Pitt, it’s gonna be okay,’” Lee Carol said.

“I definitely felt like I was part of something bigger” at Lantern Night, said Ellie, a fourth generation Pitt student studying history and psychology with an Africana Studies minor. “Just being able to bond with my suitemates but also with the other girls who were legacies and their relatives, and learn about their stories when they went to Pitt, and learn about the advice that they had to give us, was something that was really special because I was only there for a week, but I felt like I was already part of a community.”

Ellie’s cousin, Jacob Pettiford, will be joining her at Pitt this fall as a member of the class of 2024. 

Though the ceremony on the eve of classes won’t be in person this year, Regina Munsch knows the symbolism of Lantern Night will still carry first years through their transition to college in a challenging time, just as it did for her, her sister, her mother and 100 years ago.

“I hope that members of the Class of 2024 are able to look at that LED candle on a hard day and know that they’re supported, that we’re all here for them, and that they’re part of a family,” she said.

How to participate, wherever you are

The Pitt Alumni Association invites all alumnae to share photos and memories of their first days at Pitt, including their own Lantern Night. Please also include a message of encouragement and welcome for our newest students. Share memories, or reminisce while reading others’ messages.

Students on campus can place their lit candle in their window at sundown on Tuesday, Aug. 18. Those not on campus yet can join the festivities on social media using the hashtag #lantern100 and using the alumni association’s lantern gif. When those students do arrive, they are invited to place their lit candles in their windows to spread the light of learning.