What was originally called Harvard College (around which Harvard University eventually grew) held its first Commencement in September 1642, when nine degrees were conferred. Today some 1700 undergraduate degrees, and 5000 advanced degrees from the university's various graduate and professional schools, are conferred each Commencement Day.
Each degree candidate attends three ceremonies: the Morning Exercises, at which degrees are conferred verbally en masse; a smaller midday ceremony (at the candidate's professional or graduate school, or undergraduate House) at which diplomas are given in hand; and, in the afternoon, the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association, at which Harvard's President and the day's featured speaker deliver their addresses. In 2022, the alumni annual meeting will be held the week after commencement.
Several hundred[clarification needed] Harvard honorary degrees (which with few exceptions must be accepted in person) have been awarded since the first was bestowed on Benjamin Franklin in 1753. In 1935 playwright George Bernard Shaw declined nomination for a Harvard honorary degree, urging instead that Harvard celebrate its three-hundredth anniversary by "burning itself to the ground ... as an example to all the other famous old corrupters of youth" such as Yale.
The ceremonies shifted from late summer to late June in the nineteenth century,[note 1] and are now held at the end of May. A number of unusual traditions have attached to them over the centuries, including the arrival of certain dignitaries on horseback, occupancy by Harvard's president of the Holyoke Chair (a "bizarre" sixteenth-century contraption prone to tipping over) and the welcoming of newly minted bachelors to "the fellowship of educated men and women."
Most upperclass Houses have preliminary rituals of their own. At Lowell House, for example, a perambulating bagpiper alerts seniors at 6:15 am for a 6:30 breakfast in the House dining hall with members of the Senior Common Room, after which all process (along with members of Eliot House, who have been similarly roused) to Memorial Church for a chapel service at 7:45.
Morning Exercises are held in the central green of Harvard Yard (known as Tercentenary Theatre); the dais is before the steps of Memorial Church, facing Widener Library.[note 2] Some 32,000 people attend the event, including university officials, civic dignitaries, faculty, honorees, alumni, family and guests. Degree candidates wear cap and gown or other academic regalia (see Academic regalia of Harvard University).
The first to enter are candidates for graduate and professional degrees, followed by alumni and alumnae. Candidates for undergraduate degrees enter next, traditionally removing headgear as they pass the John Harvard statue en route. Finally comes the President's Procession, as follows:
At Cambridge. Is kept in the College there.
Seems but little the worse for wear.
That's remarkable when I say
It was old in President Holyoke's day.
On the dais the President occupies the Holyoke Chair, an uncomfortable and treacherous Elizabethan turned chair reserved for such ceremonies since at least 1770 (when it was already some two hundred years old). Called "bizarre ... with a complex frame and top-heavy superstructure", its "square framework set on the single rear post makes [it] tip over easily to either side."  A stabilizing "fin" was added at the rear sometime in the 20th century.
"It was just uncomfortable. I don’t know how to describe it," recalled Derek Bok, Harvard's 25th president (1971–1991), whose mother embroidered a "much-needed" cushion for use with it. Said the Harvard Gazette in 2007:
When the chair holds its robed occupant, onlookers cannot detect the odd geometry by which its triangular seat points toward a square back rippling with knobby dowels and finials. Perhaps by striking their own precarious balance in this strange seat of authority, the successors of Edward Holyoke [Harvard's president 1737–1769] come to sense what the job is all about.[note 6]
At the University Marshal's call ("Mister Sheriff, pray give us order") the Middlesex Sheriff takes to the dais, strikes it thrice with the butt of his staff, and intones, "The meeting will be in order."  Three student speakers (Undergraduate English, Undergraduate Latin, and Graduate English) are introduced and deliver their addresses.[clarification needed]
Then, according to the order in which the various graduate and professional schools were created, the dean of each school steps forward to present, en masse, that school's degree candidates. Each group stands for the President's incantation conferring their degrees, which is followed by a traditional welcome or exhortation: doctoral graduates, for example, are welcomed "to the ancient and universal company of scholars", while law graduates are reminded to "aid in the shaping and application of those wise restraints that make us free." Last to be graduated are the Bachelor's candidates, who are then welcomed to "the fellowship of educated men and women." 
Honorary degrees are then bestowed. Finally, all rise to sing "The Harvard Hymn", expressing the hope (Integri sint curatores, Eruditi professores, Largiantur donatores—printed lyrics are supplied) that the trustees, faculty and benefactors will manifest (respectively) integrity, wisdom, and generosity. After a benediction is said, the Middlesex Sheriff declares the ceremony closed and the President's Procession departs.
Once the dais is clear the Harvard Band strikes up and the Memorial Church bell commences to peal, joined by bells throughout Cambridge for most of the following hour.[note 7]
After the Morning Exercises, each graduate or professional school, and each upperclass House, holds a smaller ceremony (with luncheon) at which its member-graduates are called forward by name to receive their diplomas in hand.
At the afternoon meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association, the President and the Commencement Day speaker deliver their addresses.
US Secretary of State (and former Army general) George C. Marshall's 1947 address as Commencement Day Speaker famously outlined a plan (soon known as the Marshall Plan, and for which he would later be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize) for the economic revival of post-World War II Europe.
"Our fathers ... closely associated the thirst for learning and that for beer", a 1924 Harvard history observed, so that (a modern survey continued) the sheriffs' presence at Commencements "has a practical origin. Feasting, drinking, and merrymaking at earlier commencements often got out of hand. Fights were not unheard of", and commencements in various years have featured two-headed calves, an elephant, and Indians-versus-scholars archery competitions. Such goings-on were sufficiently common knowledge that in 1749, Bostonian William Douglass explained to a general readership that the siege and capture of Louisbourg had been "carried on in a tumultuary random Manner, and resembled a Cambridge Commencement." 
Thus in 1781,
For the prevention of Disorders on Commencement day, [the Corporation] voted that the Honble Henry Gardner Esq: and the Honble Abraham Fuller Esq: Justices of the Peace thro' the State, and Loammi Baldwin Esq: Sheriff of the County of Middlesex, be requested to give their attendance on that day ...
Earlier measures had included the 1693 banning of plum cake—the enjoyment of which, officials asserted, was unknown at other universities, "dishonourable to ye Colledge, not gratefull to Wise men, and chargable to [i.e. the fault of] ye Parents". This was one of many efforts by Increase Mather (Harvard's president from 1692 to 1701) toward "Reformation of those excesses ... [of] Commencement day and weeke at the Colledge, [sic] so that I might [prevent] disorder and profaneness" —for Harvard officials a recurring headache.[note 8]
To curb unseemly sartorial displays of wealth and social status[clarification needed] the 1807 Laws of Harvard College provided that, on Commencement day,
[E]very Candidate for a first degree shall be clothed in a black gown, or in a coat of blue grey, a dark blue, or a black color; and no one shall wear any silk nightgown, on said day, nor any gold or silver lace, cord, or edging upon his hat, waistcoat, or any other part of his clothing, in the College, or town of Cambridge.
Responding to the prospect of being nominated for an honorary degree on the occasion of Harvard's Tercentenary celebration in 1936, George Bernard Shaw wrote:
Dear Sir, I have to thank you for your proposal to present me as a candidate for an honorary degree of D.L. of Harvard University at its tri-centenary celebration. But I cannot pretend that it would be fair for me to accept university degrees when every public reference of mine to our educational system, and especially to the influence of the universities on it, is fiercely hostile. If Harvard would celebrate its three hundredth anniversary by burning itself to the ground and sowing its site with salt, the ceremony would give me the greatest satisfaction as an example to all the other famous old corrupters of youth, including Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, the Sorbonne, etc. Under these circumstances I should let you down very heavily if you undertook to sponsor me.
A handwritten postscript read: "I appreciate the friendliness of your attitude." 
Not all outside participants have been wholeheartedly enthusiastic. In the 1930s Governor Paul Dever,[when?] to the chagrin of Harvard officials and alumni, shunned the prescribed morning coat for a regular tuxedo and straw hat, and Governor James Michael Curley[when?] appeared in silk stockings, knee britches, powdered wig, and a tricorn hat with plume. (When challenged by Harvard officials—"the story goes", according to the Harvard Crimson—Curley produced the Massachusetts Bay Colony's statutes covering Harvard Commencement dress, and on the basis of its authority claimed to be the only person present who was properly attired.)
In 1970 Middlesex Sheriff John J. Buckley objected to the traditional costume he would be required to wear. After Suffolk Sheriff Thomas S. Eisenstadt was asked to open and close in Buckley's stead, Cambridge mayor Alfred Vellucci mused, "Now I see they're going to have Tom Eisenstadt march with the sword. Where is he going to get a sword unless he borrows one from the Don Juan Drum and Bugle Corps?"  (The Don Juan Drum an Bugle Corps – now inactive – was a competitive junior drum and bugle corps founded by Vellucci and his wife in 1965.)
Even after its first recorded ceremonial use (at the 1770 installation of President Samuel Locke) the President's Chair "used to stand in the Harvard library [Gore Hall], where, according to tradition, it gave a student the right to kiss any young woman whom he was showing through the college and who thoughtlessly sat down on it. Whether or not the privilege was often or ever taken advantage of the present generation has no means of knowing."  The Fogg Museum now has custody between ceremonial uses.
In 1722, the Corporation "took more stringent action still": "Whereas the Countrey in general and the College in Particular have bin under Such Circumstances, as call aloud for Humiliation, and all due manifestations of it; and that a Suitable retrenchmt of every thing that has the face of Exorbitance or [extravegence] in Expences, especially at Commencmt out to be endeavrd. And Whereas the preparations & pvisions that have bin wont to be made at those ties have bin the Occasion of no Small disorders; It is Agreed, and Voted, That henceforth no preparation nor Provision either of Plumb-Cake or rosted, boiled or baked Meats & Pyes of any kind shalbe made by any Commencer, nore shal any such have any distilled Liquors, or any Composition made therewth."
"These regulations proving ineffectual," in 1726 the Corporation, "having now had some Discourse about the great Disorders & Immoralities yt have attended ye Publick Commencements; it is agreed yt ye Several Members of ye Corporation will Jndeavour to think of wt may be a proper method for ye preventing of such Disorders & Immoralities ..."