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Graduation Ceremony Traditions and History

As area high school seniors prepare to graduate this week, the traditions of the graduation ceremony that have existed for generations will be put into practice yet again. But what exactly are the origins of all these traditions? When was “Pomp and Circumstance” written? What’s up with those gowns? Who came up with tossing the graduation caps? And why do graduates move their tassel from one side to the other?

I decided to do some research on the history of graduation customs to understand why these traditions have remained over the years.


Pomp and Circumstance

 
 

Also known as “Land of Hope and Glory” was written in Sir Edward Elgar in 1901. The title of “Pomp and Circumstance” comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Othello, “Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!” In 1902, lyrics were written by poet and essayist Arthur Christopher Benson to celebrate the crowning of King Edward the VII.

It first became associated with graduation ceremonies in 1905 when Elgar received an honorary doctorate from Yale University and it was played. Other schools such as Princeton and Columbia picked up the tune as well, before it spread to nearly every college and university in the U.S. Today the piece is often played as processional or recessional music for commencement ceremonies across the country. It has become so widely used that it’s rare to attend a graduation event without it.

 

Cap and Gown

 
 

The outfit that signifies a graduate is the traditional cap and gown. The use of the graduation gown began in the 12th century. At this time no sufficient heating systems existed in universities. Therefore scholars were forced to try and keep warm during their ceremonies. Graduates started wearing long robes with hoods to prevent being cold. Later on in that century gowns were made the official attire of academics.

Today, it is custom in most high schools that males wear the school color, while female students wear white. The gown should fall midway between the knee and ankle.

The graduation cap also has roots in this time period. The cap is sometimes called a mortarboard because of the resemblance it has to a tool used by masons to hold mortar. The caps became popular in the 14th and 15th centuries and were worn my artists and students. These hats were used to signify superiority and intelligence. At this time the caps were commonly red in color to signify blood and life.

Caps vary in color depending upon the institution today. In present day commencement ceremonies, the cap should be worn flat on the head and parallel to the floor. The front point of the cap should be centered on the forehead.

 
Thinkstock
Thinkstock

Tossing of the Cap

 
 

The throwing of the graduation cap in the air is a tradition that was started by the Naval Academy in 1912. Prior to the graduation of 1912, graduates of the academy were required to serve two years in the fleet as midshipmen before being commissioned as Navy officers, therefore they still needed their hats. The class of 1912 was commissioned from the time of graduation and received their officers hats, thus their hats were no longer needed, leaving the graduates free to toss their caps into the air and not worry about getting them back.

The tradition then caught on at other institutions throughout the country. Now the action is regarded as a symbolic gesture of the end of a chapter in a graduate’s life.

 
TJ Myers, Flickr
TJ Myers, Flickr

Turning of the Tassel

 
 

The use of a tassel adorning a graduation cap only started in the last 40 to 50 years. The tassel was originally designed to decorate the graduates cap during the ceremony but it has come to have symbolism as well.

The gesture of moving the tassel from one side of the cap to the other symbolizes the individual’s movement from candidate to graduate. Prior to the ceremony the tassel is expected to be worn on the right. During the ceremony it should be moved to the left side after students receive their diploma. This custom is practiced in educational institutions nationwide.

When you attend a high school graduation ceremony this week or weekend look out for all the traditions that are in place. Notice any other school specific customs designed to celebrate a new chapter in a graduate’s life. Congratulations to all the graduates on their accomplishments!

 
Jim, The Photographer, Flickr
Jim, The Photographer, Flickr

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