Graduations tend to follow certain traditions, though many of us are not sure why.  As we celebrate our successful students we can take a quick trip into the heritage of the familiar things we expect to see on graduation day.

Why do we wear the cap and gown?

In the early 13th and 14th centuries, most higher education took place in European churches as a path to membership in the clergy, and bulky, hooded robes were a common sight on campuses for lack of indoor heating.

Hoods originally covered the shaved heads of the clergy until they were superseded for that purpose by the skullcap, a close-fitting cap.

The square piece on top of the cap that graduates wear today is known as a mortarboard based on its resemblance to the tool used in masonry to hold mortar by hand. When and why this accessory was added to the skullcap is uncertain, but it bears some resemblance to the flat-topped biretta cap worn by early Christian clerics.

According to The Washington Post, Cambridge and Oxford are credited for enforcing robes and caps as university uniform in the 14th century to address the concern over “excess in apparel” and to set students apart from fellow civilians. Princeton then mandated that all students except freshmen wear the academic dress for commencements in 1755. Later, on March 13, 1786, a group called “The Corporation of the University” decreed black flowing robes and matching caps to be worn by candidates for bachelor’s degrees.

Colors for trimmings (including edging of hoods and tassels on caps) are meant to indicate the discipline for which the degree is being awarded.

The length of the hood is traditionally meant to indicate the level of degree earned; a bachelor’s student should usually wear a hood three feet long, a master’s hood is usually 3 1/2 feet and a doctor’s robe should have a hood of four feet long.

Sleeve patterns are also used to indicate the degree; pointed sleeves belong to bachelor’s candidates, oblong sleeves are worn for a master’s, and doctorates wear bell-shaped sleeves.

Ph.D. and doctoral sets, often custom made, can cost $1000 or more, with pieces such as tams, honor cords and stoles purchased individually.

There is no general rule for the position of the tassel on the mortarboard, though many institutions have adopted the custom of moving the tassel from the right side of the cap to the left when students receive their degrees.

Why do we play “Pomp and Circumstance?

“Pomp and Circumstance” was composed by Sir Edward Elger in 1901.

The title comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Othello (“Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”). The music was originally intended (and used) for the coronation of King Edward VII. It was first associated with graduation in 1905 when its composer received an honorary doctorate from Yale University, but it was played as a recessional, not a processional.

After Yale, Princeton University adopted the music, as did the University of Chicago. Eventually, it became the graduation standard nearly everywhere.

UCC has had a tradition of playing a recorded version of “Pomp and Circumstance,” but this year the bagpipers will play for the entire procession.

“Hang your sheepskin on the wall!”

Some graduates may have heard this expression in the weeks leading to their big day, and like so many euphemisms, it makes little sense now, but the statement did make perfect sense at one time. Before paper manufacturing became simplified and more economical, a graduate’s diploma was most likely printed onto a sheet of sheep or lambskin.

The traditional images of a rolled-up document tied with a ribbon in a graduate’s hand relate to the animal skins as well; the “paper” could be secured somewhere safe for later framing, as a little rain would shrink and distort the document.

Today, diplomas made from actual paper are typically handed to students in a nice, flat folder. It is presumed that after the transition to paper, diplomas were still issued rolled up and tied for many years until students expressed frustration at smoothing them out for framing

Why do we toss our caps to the sky?

According to Mental Floss, the US Navy might be given credit for this tradition. Cap tossing at the end of commencements may have started in 1912 at the US Naval Academy’s graduation. Newly commissioned graduates were given their officer’s hats for the first time after having worn midshipman’s caps for four years. In fervor and gratitude, the unneeded midshipman headgear was thrown to the sky. It is thought that as civilian students learned of this unusual event it was quickly adopted at college commencements across the United States.

It is interesting to note that graduation ceremonies today bear more than passing resemblance to those of centuries past. Enjoyment of graduation day traditions may have some additional spirit once we understand why we do the things we do on this special day.