Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

The white magic of the Danish graduation hat

I’m occasionally hired to do cultural training for international specialists coming to Denmark. This involves four hours of explaining the basics of Danish life – the banking system, the health care system, how to shop for food – for example, the fact that yellow is the color of discounts in Denmark. If something has a yellow price tag, the price has been cut.

And I always include a section on the Danish year.

By the Danish year, I mean the rhythm of vacation weeks and holidays from year to year, from bonfires on Sankt Hans at midsummer to the eating of duck on Morten’s Day in November.

Morten’s Day isn’t as popular as it once was, but if you didn’t know about it you might wonder why there are suddenly pictures of ducks all over the place.

The truck tour

But what always gets the most interest is what’s about to occur over the next couple of weeks – Danish high school graduations and the accompanying truck tour.

If you’ve been in Denmark in June you’ve seen this. Open-backed trucks packed with teenagers wearing fresh white caps and cheering or blowing whistles. Using there’s some pop music pumping at a very high volume.

The sides of the truck are covered with white banners, traditionally bedsheets, on which are painted slogans that are more or less obscene.

Everybody on the truck except the driver is several beers in and shouting at passerby on the sidewalk, who shout back.

Hand-made graduation hats

These kids have just graduated gymnasium, which is the Danish equivalent of high school. The stiff white caps that they are wearing are all hand-made and cost about 2400 Danish crowns, or 350 US dollars.

They are made by a single supplier, and the student’s name is embroidered in gold on the back.

You can also personalize your hat with other symbols, such as a cross if you’re a Christian or a medical symbol if you plan to be a doctor.

The more personalization, the more it costs.

An honor to put the hat on the graduate’s head

After your final exam is complete, some honored person from the family – perhaps a parent, or a grandparent, or an older sibling, will ceremoniously put the white hat on the graduate’s head.

Then everyone eats Danish strawberries and drinks bubbly either champagne or just sparkling juice, depending on your preference.

White hat magic

The new graduate wears the white hat everywhere they go for the next couple of weeks.

The hat awakes a deep sentimentality in the usually practical and private Danes. It has a sort of magic.

When my daughter received her white cap last year, total strangers stopped her in the street to say “Congratulations” – tillykke med huen. Bus drivers congratulated her as she boarded, and so did supermarket clerks at the checkout counter.

Getting the hat is seen as a very happy occasion on the road from childhood to the big wide world.

University graduation isn’t as special

The hat set off a round of parties with family and friends – we ended up hosting three – and then the students, who are between 17 and 20 years old, begin to get ready for university in the fall, or perhaps a gap year, or maybe some time in the Danish military.

But the celebration for these events, even university graduation, isn’t as big as it is for the white cap.

The white cap holds a special place in the Danish national consciousness.

What about black hats?

Here’s a good moment to point out that not every cap is white.

There is a black cap, which you can achieve if you’ve taken some extra high-level courses.

And the white caps themselves have different color bands.

The most common is the burgundy band for a 3-year classical academic education – I was surprised to find out that this still includes a course of Latin, plus classical history and comparative religion. Personally I think it’s equivalent to the first two years at an American university.

But you can also get a dark blue band, if you’ve taken an HTX technical degree, or a light blue band for a 2-year education.

I have heard about a green band for agricultural school, or a pink band for hairdressing school, although I’ve never seen these in person.

The truck tour

But whatever hat you get, you look forward to the truck tour.

These are booked far in advance, as almost everything is in Denmark, because you need a certain type of truck and a certain type of driver.

There are almost always very large men from the countryside, the sort of man who is able to control 25 deeply drunken teenagers.

Raunchy banners

The night before, the class decorate the truck with balloons and the white banners.

The banners are often directed at the other drivers on the road – for example, “One honk, the girls will drink. Two honks, the boys will drink. Three honks, it’s bottoms-up for all of us.”

(I chose one of the cleaner messages to translate, but they can get pretty raunchy.)

Jante Law is thrown aside

Then early in the morning, the truck journey begins.

The idea is to go to each classmate’s house and enjoy an alcoholic drink at every stop. The classmate’s family will be there to celebrate, sometimes wearing their own white hats that are decades old.

Jante Law gets thrown aside on this day – each family tries to outdo the next with the most impressive spread.

In my daughter’s class, one family brewed its own beer and put it in bottles – with the son’s face on it.

The kids get a little overwhelmed

As the day wears on, the students get a little overwhelmed as they get on and off the truck again and again, drinking various forms of alcohol again and again, especially if it’s a hot, sunny June day.

I’m not the biggest drinker, and we were number fourteen on the list of 24 stops, so I decided to serve fruit sodas in the garden.

“Ish there alcohol in this?” asked one of the guys.

“No,” I said, “It’s just a soda.”

“Thank you sho much. Ish the best ting I’ve had all day,” he responded.

Danish graduation hat traditions

The graduates continue to wear their hat after their truck tours to the various graduation parties – the hat comes with an insurance policy in case you lose it – and there are a number of traditions involved.

Your best friend is supposed to bite the rim of the hat, for example.

Or you make a cut in the shape of a house in the interior band if you’ve consumed an entire case of beer and managed to stay awake to see the sunrise.

Or you cut a lightning shape in the band if you’ve had sex with the hat on.

Watching from the street as the truck rolls by

Watching from the street, you won’t be able to see these more intimate marks as the student truck rolls by, but do stop and wave and cheer for the graduates anyway.

The truck tour is probably one of the most memorable days of their lives.

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