The History of Illumination

Illumination, Oberlin College and Conservatory’s annual celebration uniting the campus and community on the eve of commencement festivities, returns Sunday evening, May 26.

Crowd watching Oberlin College Taiko drum performance under colorful, illuminated paper lanterns
Illumination celebration unites campus and community on Oberlin’s bucolic Tappan Square.

This year's Illumination will mix the event’s traditional offerings—sweet sounds produced by Oberlin student musicians—with new edible enticements.

Oberlin College and Conservatory’s free campus-community celebration of a 120-year-old tradition: the lighting of Japanese lanterns strung in and around Tappan Square.
Sunday, May 26, from 7-10 p.m.
Tappan Square in downtown Oberlin

Highlights include performances by OSteel, Oberlin College Taiko, and jazz ensembles; food trucks from Cleveland Cookie Dough, Cheesy Dave’s, Off the Griddle, Lorenzo’s Pizza, and Smooth Rider; and a bonfire & s’mores.

The Illumination Tradition

Sunday’s twilight celebration carries forward a longstanding Oberlin tradition. The first Illumination was held in November 1860 to celebrate the election of President Abraham Lincoln. The use of glowing Japanese lanterns to mark happy occasions would not become a campus mainstay until the next century.

Professor of Botany Frederick O. Grover, a Harvard grad who had experienced a similar lantern display in Harvard Yard, imported the practice to commemorate the inauguration of Oberlin President Henry Churchill King in May 1903. As chronicled in the 1904 Oberlin yearbook Hi-O-Hi, attendees delighted at finding the campus “brilliantly lighted with Japanese lanterns, strung in glittering ribbons from the roof of the library, the top of the flag pole and the highest branches of the trees.”

Soon after, Illumination became an integral part of commencement activities, with few interruptions until the COVID-19 pandemic extinguished the light in 2020. In May 2021, Oberlin held its first virtual Illumination featuring Obies from around the world displaying paper lanterns. Tappan Square blazed with the light of more than 1,000 lanterns once more in 2022.

Glimpse behind the scenes of past Illuminations in our Photo Story

Illumination By the Numbers

1,300 lanterns strung on Tappan Square
1,350 candles (we still use candles and always buy extra)
16 people required to string and light lanterns
90 minutes required to hang the lanterns
30–40 lanterns lost each year to inclement weather

Lanterns strung at nighttime.