Graduation Rites Have Ancient History


    By Melody Coleman

    What is a new experience for most college graduates is actually a centuries-old rite of passage, from the degree once carefully scrawled on sheepskin ages ago, to the ceremony, which originated as Islamic tradition.

    The concept of receiving a degree comes from Islam and is associated with getting a degree from a set curriculum, said Glen Cooper, BYU history professor. The ceremony, in Islamic tradition, is vindication of knowledge that licenses one to teach what one has learned.

    The baccalaureate ceremony originates to 1432 at Oxford University where each bachelor was required to deliver a sermon in Latin as part of an academic exercise, according to the Net Glimpse Internet Web site, which deals with the history of ritual ceremonies.

    Today, each graduating student need not give a sermon; an educator associated with the university or a guest well respected by the school now does it.

    Cap and Gown

    The traditional graduation dress of cap and gown started in the 13th and 14th centuries when universities began forming throughout Europe, Cooper said. The graduation cap and gown date back to England. In the late 1800s, colors were assigned to signify certain areas of study.

    “The gowns were worn for two reasons: to symbolize they were scholars and also for religious status,” Cooper said.

    Oxford and Cambridge are two of the few universities worldwide that require their professors to wear the gown within the classroom, signifying their educational status, Cooper said.


    Master”s and doctoral graduates are given symbolic hoods that originate back to the Celts. Within the Celtic groups, only the Druid priests wore capes with hoods to symbolize their superior intelligence. The hood is presented during the baccalaureate ceremony and was originally worn as a head covering in the cold schools of the Middle Ages, according to the Brownislocks and The 3 Bears Web site that specializes in the history of graduation ceremonies.

    Today the velvet color on the outer edge of the hood denotes the graduate”s degree -white for arts and letters, gold for science and brown for fine arts the same Web site stated.


    At most high schools and universities, the tassels are first worn on the right and then flipped to the left upon receiving the diploma or degree to signify moving on from one stage of life to the next. Most graduates flip the tassel after the receipt of the degree; others may flip the tassel before walking off of the stage, stated the Brownsilocks and The 3 Bears Web site “History of Graduation.”

    Four different colors of tassels represent what degree the graduates are receiving. Yellow for a bachelor”s degree in science, pink for a degree in music, brown for fine arts and white for a bachelors degree in general education, said Eileen Johnson, a specialist in the BYU cap and gown office.


    The first diplomas were made from paper-thin sheepskin, handwritten with ink, rolled and tied with a ribbon. This tradition continued until 100 years ago when the diplomas began to be printed on parchment, according to Net Glimpse.

    Class Ring

    The first class ring was made in 1835 for West Point U.S. Academy. The rings started off very plain but soon became more complex with stones and intricate dyes that were added. The Egyptians started this idea; they felt that their scarab”s rings promised them eternal life, according to the Net Glimpse Web site.

    Today rings are worn to show pride and a sense of accomplishment.

    The Music

    “Pomp and Circumstance” is the traditional graduation march. It was composed by Sir Edward Elgar and first performed on Oct. 19, 1901 in Liverpool, England. Although not every commencement uses this song, it was passed down to America from English institutions.

    BYU Traditions

    At BYU, the graduates ring the Y bell during graduation. They also are invited to attend a reception with President Samuelson at the Museum of Art.

    Zachary Christensen, BYU alumnus who is now part of planning the graduation ceremony, was thankful to graduate from BYU.

    “I was really excited that I got to participate in commencement with my friends,” he said. “It was the crowning event of my experience at BYU.”

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