The Traditions Behind Graduation

Finally, you, a family member, or a friend is going to graduate. Whether it be kindergarten, college, or graduate school, wouldn’t you like to know about some of those long-standing and newer versions of graduation traditions?

While some venues are moving to more non-traditional ceremonies, most still stick with at least the cap and gown. The cap or mortarboard as it is called is a descendent of the 14th century, a stiff square atop an elastic skull cap, the mortarboard is approximately 10” x 10”. It was nick-named the mortarboard, as it resembles a tool masons use for bricklaying. Properly worn the cap should be parallel to the ground, not tilted. Most mortarboards today are adorned with a tassel.

The cap evolved from the Catholic clergy’s traditional biretta, a tufted four-sided hat that often signified the rank of the clergy or student. In that era, only higher students completing master’s or doctors wore the traditional red or black caps. The tassel also signified a certain specialty of the graduate, giving them an air of superiority and intelligence.

The origin of the gown stems from the same era when universities, churches, and places of learning, were unheated, thus academics and clergy wore long gowns and caps for convenience and warmth.

Turning of the tassel signifies the completion of the task or goal of the student.  Moving the tassel, from the right side to the left side, symbolizes the journey from being a candidate for a degree to a recipient of a degree. It signifies the end of education and the beginning of a new step in life.

By 1800, schools directed how scholars would appear, mostly in black gowns, but with a color that designated what fields a graduate studied. Today these colors show up on the edging of gowns or are worn as a long thin stole of silk. The color signifies areas of study such as green for a medical degree or purple for a law degree. But there are many other colors with significance such as a member of a sorority or field of study

The hat tossing or “doffing” tradition started at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in 1912. Normally graduates of the naval academy spent two years as midshipmen, however, the university decided to change the rules and commission the graduates as officers. Since the old hats were not needed they were spontaneously flung into the air after the commencement program. And the trend is continued today. Today’s graduates might want to toss and retrieve as some of the hats can be quite costly and are certainly worth saving for the sentimental value.

The original diplomas were paper-thin sheepskin, rolled and secured with a ribbon. Scholars would carry the “sheepskin” while traveling as proof of their education. Today sheepskin is rare and very expensive, thus often a graduate is handed a fake rolled piece of paper. Why? Commencement activities are often held before final grades are calculated, once confirmed the official diploma is mailed to the graduate.

Today, graduation traditions have evolved greatly. They vary from institution to institution. For example, the graduates of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture adorn their caps with large models of famous structures such as buildings, bridges, statues, and Ferris wheels often up to a foot tall. Those students have been forced to sit at the back of the ceremonies, to allow others an unobstructed view. But the architecture students don’t seem to mind.

It could be worse. In Argentina the tradition is to pellet the graduate with food, including ketchup, dressing, and syrup. Again they don’t seem to mind either!

In Sweden, parents attend graduation ceremonies with huge blown-up pictures of embarrassing situations from the graduate’s childhood. Parents take note, maybe we want to assimilate that tradition!

Even home school graduates celebrate with parties, caps, gowns, and rings designed specifically for the graduate. The tradition of class rings was born in 1835 when they were first made for the US Academy at Big Point. All participants wore the same style of ring.  Now class rings have highly individualized options, decorations, metals, and stone, even rings that signify the graduate’s interest.

Even the coronavirus could not stop the traditions of graduation. Although not allowed to have formal ceremonies, many graduates celebrated by having virtual graduations or graduation parades.

The celebration of graduation and achievement of accomplishments can’t be stopped.

So graduates, “party on!”


Written by Brenda Lewis

Brenda Lewis is a native of Jackson County. She has attended the University of Southern Mississippi on numerous occasions, earning a BS in Architectural Technology, advanced studies in Accounting and now on a mission to finalize her Masters of Business Administration.
Brenda is an avid fisherwoman, owns her own boat, baits her own hook, cleans her own fish and cooks them. But sorry guys, she has a loving husband, daughter and 4 grandchildren. When unable to fish her spare time is spent in the greenhouse and garden, supplying fresh edibles for the family and cultivating local species and rarities.
In 2007 her team was awarded the 2007 Golden Eagle Challenge from the University of Southern Mississippi. The challenge was to create the best business plan and presentation of a viable technological business. In 2015 she was certified as a TapRoot Cause Analyst, a system used to improve performance, fixing small problems to avoid major incidents.
Having worked in a small family business since childhood she was exposed to entrepreneurship. That experience led her to her own business, tax preparation, where she served her loyal clients for 10 years. During that time, she earned the Enrolled Agent certification with the IRS, and insurance and security licenses, offering additional services to her clients.
Her employment has been in private business, government, contract and corporate settings. Mostly in management, her tasks included a variety of administrative, safety, Quality control and human resources.
“The reason I want to write for OurMsHome is I have experienced the advancements in Jackson County first hand over the past 50 years, and I feel that the county has made enormous progress. We need to ‘toot our horn’ and let the world know about our rich history and abundant natural resources.”


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