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Old traditions that make mothers cry

Country Roads

The big thing around Iowa this time of year is high school graduations. It’s been 53 years since I experienced this rite of passage and it appears that some things haven’t change.

Graduates still don hot gowns and square hats, march to “Pomp and Circumstance” and are handed a diploma as a reward for 13 years of hard work. And mothers still cry when their baby walks by.

Have you ever wondered how we came to incorporate these odd traditions into high school graduation ceremonies? So did I. So I did some research.

First, let’s tackle that gown. Technically, it’s known as an “academic dress” but you can’t call it a dress because most 18-year-old guys would revolt if they were told they had to wear a dress to graduate.

The dress… er, gown… began in a very practical way in the 12th century. In early university graduation ceremonies graduates wore a gown to stay warm. Later that century, the gowns became an official part of academics in part to prevent excessive apparel. Nowadays the gown may as often hide a lack of apparel.

Now that square hat; I had never figured that one out. A bit of investigation, however, reveals that the square hats ̶ called mortarboards because they resembled the device used by masons to hold mortar ̶ came into use in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The story is that the mortarboard headpiece originated from a biretta worn by scholarly clergy to signify their superiority and intelligence. The biretta is a square cap with three or four peaks or horns and was only worn by the intellectually elite. I am not aware that any of my ancestors ever wore a biretta.

Over time graduates began wearing caps and gowns at commencement ceremonies to symbolize how this exceptional day recognizes their toil and perseverance. Though it’s been over a half century since I had to wear this symbolic apparel, I thought it was an unnecessary expense and added to my discomfort at commencement. And it looks funny.

Commencement ̶ now there’s a misuse of a word for you. We use the word commencement to mark the completion of an educational process when in reality commencement actually means the beginning or start of something. But commencement does sound better than “you’re out of here!”

“Pomp and Circumstance” is the name of the slow march to which graduates motate. It’s such a familiar tune most of us can hum a few bars.

The march was composed in 1901 by Edward Elgar and was used for the 1902 coronation of Britain’s Edward VII. A few years later Yale University used the tune when the institution gave Elgar an honorary doctorate. Later Princeton, the University of Chicago and Columbia University adopted the march and now you hear it in nearly every high school gym in the U.S. every May.

In reality, the melody played by high school bands is just a section from the first of six Pomp and Circumstance marches composed by Elgar. There are lyrics, you know. They begin, “Dear Land of Hope, thy hope is crowned…” Nothing in there about gifts, though.

Then there’s the diploma, another centuries-old tradition still continued today. The word diploma ̶ meaning “folded paper” ̶ comes from the Greek but was adopted by Latin speakers.

The tradition of awarding graduates a diploma originated at Harvard College’s first commencement on September 23, 1642. The nine graduates each received “a Book of Arts” to represent their achievement. Those “books” were inscribed on sheep skin, hence the archaic synonym. Today, of course, diplomas are printed on quality paper and usually are bound in faux leather.

I have no idea when the tradition of inviting relatives and friends over for cake and punch after the ceremony began. I assume it is more recent. In small towns where you may be invited to at least a dozen receptions you can have major indigestion by the end of the day.

Congratulations to this year’s graduates. I hope you get lots of gifts. And thanks for putting up with all the old traditions that make your mothers cry… from sadness and from overload.

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