Across The Nation: It’s Graduation

  • June 03, 2013
  • Jenna Maxwell

Graduate with Lei

At this time of the year, it’s common to be celebrating graduations a-plenty.  Whether your kindergartener is being promoted to the first grade, or your child is finally graduating from college, graduation ceremonies are a very significant milestone that marks important educational achievements.  Graduation is often referred to as commencement, meaning “beginning”.  The term commencement is used because graduates, although they are finishing an important phase of their education, are also beginning the rest of their lives and commencing the important things that lie ahead in their future.

Have you ever wondered about some of the traditions that surround graduations?  For example, where did the cap and gown come from and why are these things worn at graduation?  Since there is a good possibility many of you will be facing a graduation at some point, I thought it might be fun to enlighten you with some of the graduation basics.

Medieval Traditions:  Like so many other occasions and celebrations we have in our modern day, graduation traditions have their roots in ancient days.  You have to go all the way back to medieval times to find the source of academic dress, meaning, the cap and the gown.  During the medieval period, long gowns were commonly worn by scholars, but for a much different reason than they are today.  Gowns were worn on a daily basis and mostly because it was very chilly in the places where the scholarly sorts studied and it was practical to wear a garment that could keep the cold out.  By the time of the 12th and 13th centuries, Academic garb had become the norm.  The University of Columbia was the first to mandate that all Doctors, Bachelors and Licentiates wear gowns, and the tradition obviously stuck. 

Topping It Off:  The traditional graduate wears a type of cap called a mortarboard.  The name mortarboard stems from the cap’s resemblance to a device used in ancient days by a mason in order to hold mortar--not very glamorous, but that is indeed where the title came from.  If you trace the mortarboard style cap back in history, both members of the clergy as well as those who achieved the very highest levels of education wore this style of cap.  The mortarboard and gown became the traditional attire of scholars, the learned, as well as the academics.  Back in the day, these clothing articles were worn on a daily basis to differentiate the scholars from everyone else.  Today, graduates will wear the cap and gown just on the day of commencement, the attire being symbolic of great achievement that also makes the event of graduation more special.  Wearing a cap and gown also gives students a sense of pride for what they have achieved. 

Details, Details:  At graduation time the mortarboard cap will almost always have a place to attach a tassel.  There is some protocol involved with wearing the cap the right way as well as attaching the tassel correctly.  First off, the cap should be worn so that one of the points of it is directly over the center of your face.  The tassel can be attached to the mortarboard by looping it over the button found in the center of the cap.  Before the diploma is received, the tassel should hang on the right side of the cap.  After all the diplomas have been awarded, the graduates will then simultaneously move their tassels to the left side of the cap!  At this point there is almost always a lot of cheering and applause from the audience!

Leis:  In Hawaii, it is a common practice to give the gift of a traditional Hawaiian lei to a graduate as a congratulatory gift.  This lovely practice has made its way onto the mainland, and at least in many areas of California is now a common practice and a growing graduation tradition.  The Hawaiian lei also looks absolutely amazing on top of those graduation gowns!  Those ancient medieval scholars sure never saw this tradition coming but something tells me they would most certainly approve.

Graduation is a very memorable time that marks an important milestone as well as a really big achievement.  Knowing a little bit of the symbolic history behind this important ceremony in your life can only make it that much more meaningful.  Congratulations to all the graduates out there from your friends at Halloween Express!