Top Graduation Traditions and Why They're Significant

Graduation is an achievement! Whether the diploma you received required one year of school or many, earning one is something to celebrate. Graduation traditions are meant to applaud your commitment to learning, instill a sense of togetherness, and recognize outstanding achievement. With many graduations turning virtual due to the pandemic, more than ever, in-person traditions are appreciated. So how did these traditions come to be?

7 Graduation Traditions and What They Mean

Many graduation traditions exist, depending upon where you live, your school, and your program of study. Like most traditions, many began with a new idea that groups decided to reenact year after year. Over time, the novel transforms into the familiar, and a tradition is born. Here are just a few fun facts about graduation to get you excited about the big day!

1. Move the Tassel and Toss the Cap

The cap is symbolic of all graduates, from toddlers completing Pre-K to adults finishing their Ph.Ds. After years of hard work, tossing your graduation cap into the air is liberating! The tradition started in 1912 at the U.S. Naval Academy when the graduates no longer needed their midshipmen hats, so they tossed them skyward! (They were given new officer hats as part of their Navy uniforms after graduating.)

Moving tassels at graduation is a fun tradition. But why do graduates move the tassel on the cap? Though tassels have been around throughout history, moving the tasselon the cap is a modern tradition to mark the shift from candidate to graduate. It happens before the cap toss.

A common question is, does the tassel go from right to left? It depends. High school grads and undergraduates move them from right to left. But those earning advanced degrees keep them on the left throughout the ceremony.

2. Customize the Cap

It’s tough to know when the trend to decorate graduation caps began, but it goes as far back as the 1960s. Decorating your cap turns it into a treasured keepsake. Customize it with fabric paint, stickers, or cut-outs to match with your friends, quote your favorite TV show, or make a powerful statement. Plus, it can help you stand out from the crowd so your family can recognize you from afar!

3. Wear Your Class Ring

One of the top graduation traditions in high school and college is wearing a class ring. Juniors in high school or college can purchase a class ring and wear it leading up to graduation, on Graduation Day itself, and after, as an alum.

The tradition of class rings began in 1835 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. At first, they were designed to be the same to unify the graduating class. Nowadays, there are many options to customize your ring. Typically, a class ring includes a gemstone and the school’s name engraved on a high-quality metal band.

4. White Dresses or Black Gowns

Some private high school and college graduations have female graduates who don long white dresses and carry red roses as the male graduates walk in tuxedos. While it’s unclear why, the color white denotes innocence and a blank slate, and the tuxedos acknowledge that the ritual is a formal affair.

However, for the past 1000 years, most commencement ceremonies have required long, traditional black gowns with stoles. Back then, only men studying to be priests were educated, so the gowns emulated the robes of clergymen. The length kept them warm before central heating was invented. The stoles visually set the graduates apart from priests.

Nowadays, colored stoles, or sashes, indicate the graduation year and can be customized. Colored cords with tassels hung loosely around the neck represent membership in clubs and organizations or other academic achievements. (Caps and gowns are worn together, so if a school’s graduation dress code calls for white dresses and tuxedos, the graduates forgo the caps.)

5. Culturally-Specific Celebrations

Many American graduation traditions came from Europe centuries ago. But some culturally specific celebrations have emerged to recognize communities that supported graduates during their schooling. These are more common in American collegiate settings, as their vast and diverse populations call for culturally-specific celebrations.

Since 1993 at West Chester University, Donning of the Kente has allowed African-American students and their families to celebrate with each other while presenting graduates with an honorary stole made of Kente cloth. This fabric originated hundreds of years ago in Ghana. The Kente stole is then worn at the larger school-wide graduation ceremony.

Depending upon the college's student population, Latin American, Native American, Asian and Pacific Islander, and other groups have their own college graduation traditions and ceremonies.

6. Baccalaureate Mass

Catholic schools hold a Baccalaureate Mass before Commencement. Graduates and their families are invited to attend to receive blessings, give thanks to God, and reflect upon the academic journey. Sometimes, the traditional Mass service is expanded upon to include recognition of seniors’ accomplishments.

Most believe that the Baccalaureate Mass has been a tradition since medieval times, beginning at Oxford University in England, where seniors had to deliver a sermon in Latin to graduate. Princeton University in New Jersey carried on a similar practice, and over time, the sermon delivered by graduates was replaced by a Mass delivered by a priest.

7. Unique Individual Celebrations

Each school is unique. From seniors walking down their former elementary school hallways in their caps and gowns to decking out their cars in school colors, high school graduation traditions vary, even within the same geographical area.

In some schools like Bergen County Academies, the traditions start before Graduation Day. In the weeks before the big day, seniors mark their territory on hallway windows by painting the logo of their chosen university.

Celebrate with Rastaclat

Now that you’ve brushed up on some graduation facts, it’s time to get the party going! To celebrate all they’ve accomplished, give your favorite grad a Gradclat bracelet, designed with a black tassel knot and a cap on the gold hardware. Start your own tradition by giving or wearing these commemorative bracelets!

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