#73: Witness the Purple Shadows on Jefferson’s Birthday


April 13th is a time for celebration at the University of Virginia. Founder’s Day (Thomas Jefferson’s Birthday) marks a time for ceremonies, celebratory events and secret society activities. The List of 113 Things To Do Before You Graduate highlights“Witness the Purple Shadows on Jefferson’s Birthday” as one of the must-do activities before graduation.

I had never seen the Purple Shadows before, and decided that I had to make an effort to see them during my final year at the University. The Purple Shadows arrive at the lawn between daybreak and sunrise on the morning of TJ’s birthday, and process across the lawn to the statue of Thomas Jefferson. There, they lay a wreath with a letter to the University community before wordlessly processing out.


The Purple Shadows at Jefferson’s statue

Students wake up early in the morning to fill the lawn, waiting for a glimpse of the secret society. Some students choose to stay awake all night, drinking until the Purple Shadows arrive. Sunrise was set to be a little after 6:40, so I arrived on the lawn around 6am. The lower lawn was already packed with students wrapped up in blankets, huddled together as they waited. Some were still drinking—I noticed a few people swigging out of champagne bottles as I looked through the crowds.

When the Purple Shadows finally arrived, students rushed down the lawn to follow them and snap photos. After their departure, students gathered around and read the letter that they had left for the community.


Wreath and letter left by the Purple Shadows


A student reads the Purple Shadows letter aloud

This 2010 Cavalier Daily video shows the annual tradition:

The Purple Shadows were founded in 1963. The Society was founded with a strong support of the Honor System, working to promote UVA’s tradition of excellence. It is believed that the Society took its name from “The Honor Men,” poem, the last lines of which members of the graduating class tend to quote upon Final Exercises:

“Remembering the purple shadows of the lawn, the majesty of the colonnades, and the dream of your youth, you may say in reverence and thankfulness:
“I have worn the honors of honor, I graduated from Virginia.””

Some of my friends who went to see the Purple Shadows were disappointed, arguing that it was anti-climactic. I definitely think that it is worth it to go out and witness the event at least once before graduation. It’s one of those UVA traditions that brings students together in a unique way—what other time do you see nearly a hundred hungover students wake up at 5 or 6am after a night of drinking to sit outside on a cold morning?


Still not convinced? As an added bonus, witnessing the Purple Shadows allows you to knock out another to-do list item in the process: #97 See the Sunrise on the Lawn.

The time to complete bucket list item #73 has passed for this year, but as with many UVA events, the tradition will carry on.