Campus & Community

Commencement feasting, customs, color date to medieval Europe

7 min read

The sheriffs still ride up to Harvard’s Johnston Gate on horseback. The free beer flows freely. It’s the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Harvard, the first benefactor of the University, and the 356th Commencement at the nation’s oldest institute of higher learning.

Some schools hail it as “graduation,” but that implies an “ending” or “finishing up.” Harvard, along with many other schools, prefers “commencement,” from the Latin word inceptio, which connotes the “beginning” or “inception” of a new productive and prosperous life.

Both the word and most of the day’s traditions go back to medieval Europe, according to Commencement director Grace Scheibner, who oversees the many and diverse details of the largest event in any Harvard year. “The first Commencement took place in 1642, she notes. “The difference between 365 years and 356 commencements is accounted for by wars and plagues that cancelled the event.”

Following a rush of thousands of parents and relatives to get good seats, starting at 6:45 a.m., and a procession of scholars, dignitaries, and graduates about two hours later, the sheriffs of Middlesex and Suffolk counties arrive on horseback. The sheriff of Middlesex County, where the Cambridge campus is located, dismounts and heads for the stage in a yard known as the Tercentenary Theatre. Seated on a platform adjoining the Memorial Church, at the north end of the open area, are the dignitaries, including interim President Derek Bok seated in an uncomfortable wooden chair with twisted legs that dates back at least 270 years.

The University Marshal, Jackie O’Neill, asks the Middlesex sheriff, “Mr. Sheriff, pray give us order.” He goes to center stage, strikes the dais three times with the butt of his long staff, and announces, “The meeting will be in order.”

The presence of two sheriffs has a practical origin. Feasting, drinking, and merrymaking at earlier commencements often got out of hand. Fights were not unheard of, so “Sheriffs really did have to keep order,” Scheibner explains.

Samuel Batchelder noted in his “Bits of Harvard History” (1924): “Our fathers … closely associated the thirst for learning and that for beer.” Research by Harvard archivist Marvin Hightower found that the comparatively few graduates of 1703 and their guests consumed 14 barrels of beer, 18 gallons of wine, and a barrel of cider.

Hightower also notes that, “In 1797 a live elephant was brought from Providence, R.I., to be exhibited at Commencement, along with people dressed as mermaids and mummies, and displays of two-headed calves. The Indians of Natick were invited to compete with Harvard scholars in prize competitions of target shooting with bows and arrows. The Indians won.”

A shuffle of color

The first commencement saw nine bachelor’s degrees awarded. In 2007, Scheibner estimates approximately 1,700 undergraduate degrees and about 5,000 advanced degrees from 11 graduate and professional schools. Add in all the guests, from those receiving honorary degrees to school officials and faculty, to grandpas and grandmas, and the expected crowd swells to 32,000.

The procession of academics into the Tercentenary Theatre begins at 8:50 a.m., rain or shine. It’s a colorful shuffle. “Black-robed B.A.s, crimson-clad Ph.D.s, scholars’ garb from around the world bursting forth like brilliant bows,” as Hightower describes it. “Here, the Sorbonne’s red and blue. There a piece of Oxford’s ermine.”

Fields of study are identified by colorful “crows’ feet” on the gowns. B.A.s from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences are coded white. Doctors of philosophy wear dark blue, the color of truth and wisdom. Future lawyers are identified by purple, the color of royalty. Those from the Medical School don a green insignia to stand for both medicinal herbs and hope.

The distinctive black mortarboards are often enhanced, for better or worse, by ribbons, buttons, and whatnots added by wearers. Those curious flattops, legend has it, date back to ancient Greece. According to history, wise men of those times chose the mortarboard “because the destiny of graduates is to build. They will build cities, some will build lives, perhaps one will build an empire, but all will build on a solid foundation of knowledge.”

Tradition calls for the jaunty mortarboard tassel to be worn hanging in front to the right before graduation, then moved to the left front afterwards. However, the wind often overwhelms tradition.

Psalms, songs, and orations

At the first Commencement, the top Harvard scholar gave an oration in Greek while other scholars addressed the assembly in Latin and Hebrew. Latin was the language of the first thesis defenses and of the president when he conferred degrees. The Commencement program was mostly in Latin from 1866 to 1943, and College diplomas came in Latin until 1960.

Three student orators carry on that tradition today. One undergraduate speaks in Latin and one in English. One graduate student gives an English oration. Being chosen is a high honor, and those who receive it are picked in auditions by a panel of faculty judges.

Amid psalms and songs, the orators speak and the president addresses the always overcrowded assembly. It’s obviously not practical to read out 6,000 or more names, so degrees are awarded en masse by School. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the University Extension School come first, followed by graduate schools in the order in which they were established. Bachelor degrees come last, when the undergraduates are welcomed into “the fellowship of educated men and women.”

Individuals receive their diplomas at ceremonies held later at the various Houses and graduate schools.

Last, but definitely not least, honorary degrees are bestowed. Except for the keynote Commencement speaker, names of honorands remain a closely held secret until Commencement morning. This year, the featured speaker will be William Gates III, founder and head of Microsoft Inc., who, it turns out, is a Harvard dropout.

Between the Morning Exercises and afternoon ceremonies, it’s time for “cakes and ale.” The boisterous beer parties of old have given way to buffets and box lunches. Alums enjoy the latter in the tree-shaded Old Yard. Those in the Houses and graduate schools can find quantities of liquid to sustain their Commencement Day toasts. Alums, Harvard staff, and others may enjoy one of the last perks of the grand ole days: Free beer is available at a tent in the Old Yard.

When things go wrong

Although Commencement involves a highly practiced routine, things can and do go wrong. “When 32,000 people are moving from place to place on the campus, you have 32,000 opportunities for something to go wrong,” notes Scheibner with half a smile.

Weather always casts its shadow over the Tercentenary Theatre. In 2006, Commencement week was a washout. The Tercentenary Theatre and Old Yard were floored with wet grass and mud. Scheibner and her battalion of helpers have developed an “Extreme Weather Plan,” but, she says, “we hope never to use it.”

Security is now more of a problem than in Colonial times. When Gen. Colin Powell, former secretary of state, spoke at the 1993 Commencement, those protesting the U.S. military’s policy on gays, and the police brought in to control them, peppered the campus. “We had SWAT teams on the roofs,” Scheibner recalls. With both Bill Gates and former President Bill Clinton speaking this week, security is a big concern in 2007.

Then there are those small but significant nail-biters. At one Commencement, an honorand forgot her lucky beret, an item she felt she could not appear onstage without. A car and driver rushed to her hotel in Boston, a concierge opened her room, the hat was found, and the driver headed back in the notorious traffic of a Boston morning. The team got her hat to the superstitious honorand just as she reached the steps of the dais.