Congratulations! Somehow, against all odds, you've finally graduated. And now you have to sit through the wonders of graduation day, with weepy relatives, thousands of names being called, and your one moment of glory in which you stride across the stage and wave your diploma in the air (or weep onto it after thinking about the amount of student debt it has cost you). Graduation has, as a momentous moment in the career of young scholars, understandably attracted many traditions and celebratory quirks throughout the years, with each institution striving to outdo the others. When it comes to the most interesting things people get up to with that mortarboard on their heads, an expensive lunch with parents doesn't even make the list.
Universities are natural hotbeds of tradition and superstition. The University of Sydney, for instance, went through a mourning period in 2016 where the renowned jacaranda tree in its main quadrangle died; the superstition that you could pass your finals if you began studying before the the jacaranda flowered was seen as an inviolable part of the university's identity. (Also, as a student of that university, I can tell you it was a pretty accurate time assessment — some college superstitions do have a hint of fact to them.)
But when it comes to people getting their degrees and stepping into the wide world, things can go beyond the merely superstitious and into the frankly weird. From wielding swords to dressing as Snoopy to getting covered in trash, let's have a look at the oddest graduation traditions around the world.
Throughout its history, Wellesley College students have rolled hoops in an intensive race — it originally began as a May Day activity celebrating the coming of spring, but later became tied to graduation. Now, it's an organized bit of chaos; younger students will camp overnight to hold the spots on the starting line for students about to graduate; hoops are highly decorated; and the winner of the race is thrown ceremonially into Lake Waban. Apparently, that aspect of the tradition started because a male student from Harvard dressed as a Wellesley student and won the race; when his true identity was discovered, he was borne to the lake and thrown in as a punishment.
Traditions of hoop-rolling are not confined to Wellesley, either. Cambridge students were apparently prone to rolling hoops between their lessons, until an ordinance had to be passed banning it in 1816.
Publicly Covering The Grad In Trash (aka "Trashing")
This traditions is found in three distinct places worldwide: Italy, Argentina, and Oxford in the UK. Both Italy and Argentina make it a family affair; graduates are showered with ketchup, cream, and any other sort of edible item to make their status as a graduate publicly (and nauseously) obvious.
It's in Oxford, where I live, that the tradition of "trashing," as it's called, has become a well-refined art. After a person's final exams (which, in Oxford tradition, grads take in "sub fusc," or full academic dress including a white bow tie and academic gown), they're often showered with champagne, whipped cream, confetti, sprinkles, glitter and more disgusting substances (one friend of mine was, alas, drenched in milk). It's become such a distinct part of the graduation process that the university has had to pass ordinances to regulate it: confetti has to be biodegradable, trashings have to take place away from main roads, and woe betide you if you do it anywhere near an exam still taking place.
Technically speaking, trashings are restricted to people who have just finished their last exams for their degrees, but young upstarts have started doing them at the end of every exam season, prompting grumbles among the older crowd.
Smoking On The Porch
This is one of my favorites. The University of Notre Dame in Indiana had a rule in its early days that only graduates were deemed to be socially important enough to mount the front steps of a certain building, stand on a porch and smoke with their professors. The steps were, accordingly, off limits to anybody but graduates and teachers. These days, graduating students mostly just mount these steps triumphantly — but it's entirely possible that they could bring out a pipe and light up if they liked. The more banal idea of a celebratory cigar seems a bit less glam, really.
Smoking has played a role in other college graduation traditions that have, alas, since died out. Middlebury College, for instance, saw a trend from the 1920s to the beginning of World War II in which graduates gathered to smoke long white popes lit by their parents.
Giving Swords To Graduates
The fact that universities were once populated by many young noblemen is still, occasionally, reflected in graduation traditions worldwide. (And in exam regulations; there are explicit rules in Oxford's exam handbook about bringing a sword into your exam room. No, it's not allowed.) Finnish graduates who have received doctorates are allowed to wear and present swords at their graduation ceremony, because, apparently, it represents their fight for what, “in rigorous research, has found to be good, right, and true."
The rules around the swords themselves, however, are strict. The University of Lund explains that doctorates must wear "the officially certified civilian sword of the independent Republic of Finland," which is precisely 87 centimeters long and weighs 1.6 pounds, and must be carried on the left side. Women graduating, they note, "should include a belt or other similar aid that matches the outfit," so that they can carry their sword appropriately. Lafayette College in Pennsylvania used to lead its graduation procession with the sword of the Marquis de Lafayette, he of the alligator in the White House, but it has been retired because it's now an antique.
Dressing Up In Bizarre Costumes
Graduations in general usually involve stupid outfits; even if you're a hugely attractive being, very few of us look our best in a giant flowing robe and mortarboard, unless you're Minerva McGonagall. (I love having a PhD, but putting me in a red, purple and gold robe and a hat that looked like an upside-down pouch sure didn't make me feel like a dignified intellectual.) The origins of academic dress lie in the fact that originally, universities in Europe were almost exclusively for monks and men of the cloth, and we're all basically wearing modern versions of priest's gowns. Mortarboards have a slightly more puzzling history, but appear to be derived from the skull caps once worn by Italian clergy, with gradual alterations over the years to distinguish them as scholar's garb.
If you're going to look like weird, though, you may as well go all out. That's the perspective of the Kanazawa College of Art in Japan, in which students are encouraged to wear whatever they like to their graduation ceremony, the crazier the better. The 2014 ceremony, for instance, included giant cellos, Iron Man, hand-made armor, and a very well-done Snoopy. Makes that funny message you wrote on top of your mortarboard seem a bit lacking, doesn't it?