“It was fun to say ‘I will make you love something you didn’t know anything about.’”
—Rob Mack ‘93, one of the founders of Nitrogen Day
A cloud of heavy vapor spills over the table and onto the sidewalk in a chilly plume, slowly clearing to reveal homemade ice cream. Reedies chatter and bob up and down in the nearby bouncy house. Making your way across the quad, you might encounter shards of onion or a used whippit canister on the ground. It’s Nitrogen Day!
According to a Reed Magazine article by Raymond Rendleman published in 2009, Nitrogen Day began 26 years ago on April 23, 1992, its birth sparked by a conversation among a group of friends about how it would be cool to have a day celebrating nitrogen. Since its inception, every Nitrogen Day has been referred to as the 7th Annual in honor of the element’s place on the periodic table.
However, the communal worship of the element used to be much more elaborate than it is today. According to a schedule of events published in a sping 1992 Quest, the first Nitrogen Day featured a brass band parading out from the LibLob, a Reed band named “Just Say N to O,” and ceremonial gatherings titled “In Nitrogen We Trust” and “Ode to Nitrogen and its Triple Bond.” The grand celebration was organized by a student group that rallied under the name “Committee to Sustain Mysticism, Spirituality and Awe While Deconstructing and Rationalizing the World Around Us.” Nitrogen Day 1992 featured a cookout on the quad just like it does now (though with meat hot dogs instead of veggie burgers), and went over so well that it was repeated the following year, officially becoming a Reed tradition.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Nitrogen Day involved reciting nitrogen-themed haikus on the porch of the Student Union, Nitrogen Day t-shirts with diagrams of the nitrogen cycle, and an open mic for Reedies to share their appreciation for the element and speculate wildly on what would happen to the world in its absence. While celebrations have become less elaborate — and in some ways less focused on information about nitrogen — the tradition has persisted as an oft-cited example of weird Reed culture.
An op-ed in a 1994 Quest praises Nitrogen Day from the perspective of a prospie coming upon Nitrogen Day. “Nirtogen Day is my earliest memory of Reed: A bunch of mood-altered Reedies hanging out of the steps of the SU bellowing their love of Nitrogen into the world… it’s one of the main reasons I chose to come to Reed… which is why I love Nitrogen Day, even though I don’t really know what the hell it is.” This account is eerily similar to the experience of yours truly, who featured Nitrogen Day in her very own “Why Reed?” application essay back in 2014.
Much of Nitrogen Day’s appeal stems from casting it as a celebration of an underappreciated element. Nitrogen lacks the glamour of carbon and the popular adoration we give oxygen, yet it is just as crucial to life, playing an essential part in DNA and all kinds of other biological molecules. In this way, the celebration of Nitrogen Day rides on the theme of rooting for an underdog.Reed’s website in 2009 described Nitrogen Day as a Reed holiday and “celebration of one of the universe’s most important yet underappreciated element,” and, of course, a creative excuse to offer free food and music to the student body.
Nitrogen Day’s enduring popularity was demonstrated in an off-campus celebration held by alum Steve Carlson ‘93 in the Bay area. The Bay Nitrogen Day was attended by over 30 Reed alumni and their families, and featured many recognizable elements from recent Nitrogen Days, such as liquid nitrogen ice cream making and a bouncy house (filled with 80% nitrogen… just like our atmosphere).
While early celebrations of Nitrogen Day may have sounded more official and been more elaborate than in recent years, its appeal and popularity was founded on the same wacky delight and excuse to celebrate that it embodies today.
Cover photo: celebration of Nitrogen Day, 2000.Courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.