You Can Leave Your Hat on — The Truth About Danish Graduation Culture and Traditions

Hats, trucks, parties, and drinking

It’s officially summer in Denmark and soon jubilant young adults dressed in white and donning sailor-like caps will be swarming parks, plazas, beaches, and streets across the country. For a long weekend at the end of June, truckloads of teens blasting loud music and blowing whistles will stumble between gardens and courtyards of their classmates’ houses. Especially around Copenhagen, the public is here for it. After all, it’s Danish graduation season. Here’s what all the cheering is about.

Graduates jump in Storkespringvandet fountain | Amagertorv Copenhagen, DK

Studenterkørsel = Graduate truck ride

In Denmark, the exuberance of youth on this right of passage carries a communal sense of occasion and achievement. In the capital, locals wave and cheer to the long honk, honk, honk of open-air trucks full of grads as they tour around town. Some raise a glass and clap from outdoor patios or brightly ding bells from the seats of their bikes.

Two of our three children took part in these raucous graduation festivities. The eldest boys attended a Danish Gymnasium with an international department. They completed the two-year International Baccalaureate – or IB – degree. And while their schooling was slightly different from the traditional Danish structure, their graduation celebration was not.

Studenterkørsel truck stops at a graduates house – Copenhagen, Denmark
Different Types of High Schools in Denmark

Before all the partying begins, a quick summary of the Danish education system. In Denmark, school children don’t begin formal instruction until age 6 (by birth year) when they enter a local school in reception (or 0. Klasse). Typically kids stay with that exact same group of students for the following 10 school years, finishing primary in Year 9 (or 9. Klasse) – compulsory here. What comes next is an impressive array of choices varying from different levels of higher education to specific trade and vocational training. From here the option is up to each student.

STX = Higher General Examination is the standard Danish Gymnasium (high school) option. It is a higher-level generalized course of study and takes 3 years to complete. Graduates are then eligible to apply to university.

HF = Higher Preparatory Examination. A two-year generalized education that prioritizes trainee courses towards a specific profession or further education.

HTX = Higher Technical Examination is a 3-year degree that is geared towards students who want to focus on science and technology before university.

IB = International Baccalaureate is an internationally recognized curriculum and diploma. A rigorous two-year curriculum requiring language, math, and courses in area of focus. In Denmark, courses are taught in English. But IB is not strictly for foreign students, many Danes who have lived abroad may take this route.

VET = Vocational education and training program is a state-supported way for many young Danes to gain the tools, knowledge, and experience to join the labor force within skilled professions.

Efterskole = “After school,” an option after 9. klasse where kids pause formal education and live away from home to focus on specific interests like music, theater, design, or sports with some academic learning. Many go on to one of the above-mentioned programs.

Studenterkørsel trucks let graduates off near Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen
Last Day of Danish High School

End-of-high-school traditions usually begin with the last day of teaching. Unlike schools in the US, students are given dedicated time off just for exam study. Usually several weeks. Imagine that. So in Denmark, letting off a little steam at the end of formal classes tends to happen. The timing of this final class varies between programs as IB exams are administered nearly a month prior to those in the Danish system. Students in international education have testing dates set by the International Baccalaureate organization – normally at the end of May each year. The Danish schools set their own exam timing, but they usually occur mid to end of June, directly before Danish graduation (or Dimission.)

At the IB school, my boys attended, the kids wore nice dresses and suits for the last day of instruction, where toasts were made and kids then went out to parks or to parties. Packs of kids with racks of beverages pile onto lawns in the capital. But not for long as study they must. The final exams are intense, no matter what choice of study.

It’s not a Danish celebration without cake – traditional Studenterkage from Lagkagehuset
Exam Time and the Studenterhuer

In Danish schools, final exams are written or taken orally and grades are received directly after completion. Grades here are awarded on a 7-point scale with 12 being the highest and -3 being the lowest. If it sounds confusing, it’s because it is. Kids can earn a 12, 10, 7, 4, 2, 0, or -3. with a minimum of 2 to pass a class. Students finish according to their individual test schedules – so schools empty in a sort of celebratory trickle.

Danish tradition awards each graduate a special hat – the “studenterhue” – placed upon the student’s head after their last high school exam, on the spot. Family members will wait outside the child’s last exam classroom with flowers and champagne and the graduate’s own special order cap.

IB Hat ceremonies at Birkerød Gymnasium, Birkerød Denmark

In International Baccalaureate schools, tests are administered to a whole class of students, so hat ceremonies become more communal. All the kids finishing tests on a specific day will attend a smaller celebration where they choose a special person – a parent, sibling, or friend – to award them their hat.

Afterward, bubbles, photos, and hugs happen as a group. Unlike the Danish students who get their grades immediately, IB graduates have to wait until exam results are released around the world on July 6. Those numbers are important for the Danish graduation traditions. Stay tuned.

You can leave your hat on | Studenterhuer

The Studenterhue or student hat is serious business in Denmark. Unlike cap and gowns seen elsewhere internationally, the Danish studenterhue is a graduate’s only accessory. And they’ll wear it for weeks. For good reason. It carries a street cred where even strangers will greet you – “Tillykke med huen!” Congratulations with the hat. Often bars, bakeries, and shops will have student specials or freebies. Danes know what it took to achieve it and many know exactly where their own is stored away in the closet.

Nowadays, there are as many variations of student hats as there are paths to earn them. But one company can provide every iteration. C.L. Seifert – famous for supplying the Danish Royal Court – has been producing grad caps since 1865. The business is now a well-oiled machine. Representatives meet with the students early in the school year to measure their heads and show off their wares. Hopefully, your student doesn’t have the largest or the smallest head in the class – there are grad rules regarding that.

Do you want your name embroidered on the back? Do you want a gold strap or black? How about a collector’s box or special gold pen for friends to sign inside your cap? From the little front shade to the buttons and patch – every bit is customizable these days. And each shiny option, decidedly not cheap.

Want to keep it classic? The red band is for STX grads, blue for HF, and a ribbon of flags for international students. Read more on the hatmaker’s website to see all the types. But much more important than what your hat looks like, are the rules and traditions while wearing it.

The Student Hat Rules

These rules aren’t for the faint of heart. Danish grads are a boisterous sort. And remember, the drinking age in Denmark is 16 years old to purchase anything under 16.5% alcohol. You must be 18+ to drink in a bar, restaurant, or cafe, but public consumption is legal. Hence why public parks and beaches are popular with this set in this season. If you find your own grad has any of these marks on their newly donned cap, now you’ll have a better idea of the reason.

Classic studenterhuer rules:

  • The student with the largest hat and smallest hat must supply a box of beer for the class.
  • The last exam grade is written inside the middle of the hat.
  • Significant others’ names are written next to the logo inside the cap.
  • A triangle-shaped notch is cut into the sweatband if you stay up until sunrise after a party.
  • A square-shaped notch is cut into the sweatband if you have 24 drinks within 24 hours.
  • Secret admirers can write intimate notes inside the sweatband.
  • Best friends make bite marks in the shade of the cap.
  • If you vomit, a notch is cut in the shade.
  • If you need to go to the hospital to have your stomach pumped, the entire shade must be removed from the cap.
  • If you score with the nurse at the hospital before or after your stomach is pumped, then they cut off the chin strap.

Other modern hat rules include:

  • If you’ve gone swimming with only the hat on, cut a wave into the band.
  • If you have sex with your current partner (plus hat on) cut a heart into the band.
  • Sex with someone else (with hat on) – a lightning bolt is cut into the band.
  • Kissing someone of the same gender – the gold cross or other symbol in front of hat is turned upside down. Turns right side up when a different gender is kissed.
  • If you’ve been up for 24 hours, the cap should be worn backward.
  • Breaking up with a significant other requires buttons to be removed from the sides of the hat.
  • If you tear your clothes when out and about, you must take a drink from the cap.

For the full list of the most up-to-date rules, check out the Studenterhue Reglar website.


Danish Graduation ceremony | Dimission

A formal graduation ceremony (Dimission) takes place when all the tests have been tackled and all the hats delivered. Students and families gather back at their school for speeches and toasts. At our school, the international kids return to participate with the entire student body, even though they had a separate ceremony a month earlier. Fair warning – this Dimission will be entirely in Danish.

Post-dimission – the kids will scurry to the parking lot to board large open-air trucks that they have previously decorated with flags, flowers, and signs often with raunchy sayings. Depending on how large a class is, approximately 15-20 grads will be ferried between each of those kids’ family’s houses. Per Danish tradition, all the students who received the highest mark on a test must run behind the truck to the first stop. This custom is usually overlooked if students didn’t attend a nearby neighborhood institution.

Graduation truck rides | Studenterkørsel

This is the part everyone has been waiting for, the ride about town on the graduation trucks. The Studenterkørsel. Every Dane you talk to remembers (most of) their own ride fondly. (Mostly.) Routes are pre-planned and parents race home to receive the revelers on their turn. Speaking from experience, if you have a stop later on the route, it’s safe to assume they’ll be arriving behind schedule.

But you don’t want to miss them! Suddenly the loud honking finally turns down your street. Family, friends, and neighbors you’ve invited come out to greet the grads as they file off the truck and form a tunnel for the host’s student. This student may or may not have to take a shot or chug a beer as they get off. It’s a quick and raucous stop – about 15-20 minutes – with songs, hugs, laughs, eats, and drinks before they move on to the next spot.

Jumping in the fountain

Historically in Copenhagen, graduating students made a stop at the central Kongens Nytorv plaza, where they would circle the statue in the middle. But for many years the statue was hidden by construction of the city’s new Metro line. So happy grads found another iconic location to mark the occasion. Enter the Storkespringvandet – or Stork Fountain. Literally, they enter the fountain. The looks on visitors’ faces as group after group of ebullient teens pop off their shoes (sometimes more) and jump in the water. You had to be there – the pure freedom and joy were hard to contain.

Storkespringvandet | Stork Fountain | Amagertorv, Copenhagen DK

Another Round

What a life, what a night
What a beautiful, beautiful ride
Don’t know where I’m in five but I’m young and alive
Fuck what they are saying, what a life

– “What a Life” by Scarlet Pleasure

Pardon my Danish, but the above-quoted theme song from the Oscar-winning movie ‘Another Round,’ is the perfect anthem for Denmark’s graduation season. The last scene of the “Best International Feature Film,” by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg gives a pretty good impression of the joie de vivre on graduation celebrations in this Scandinavian country. Have you seen it? A little love story of sorts to Danish drinking culture, the movie walks the line between no longer embracing life and losing control. It will have you chanting Skål! (cheers) in your seats and then immediately squirming during difficult scenes.

It features amazing acting by Mads Mikkelsen (he’s Danish didn’t you know) – especially in the last scene which is definitely my favorite. No spoilers, but the main characters – teachers at a local gymnasium (Danish high school) – end up dancing with their students cruising the pretty Copenhagen waterfront on their celebratory “studenterkørsel.” It brought back such happy memories from our own sons’ graduation rides.

A decidedly Scandi culture and tradition

This all has been difficult to describe and share with friends and family in the States. A lot of the culture surrounding Danish graduation (similar traditions exist in Norway and Sweden) elicits shock and confusion. You let them do what? We did. And I would do it again. Were the hangovers real? They were. That’s where cheeseburgers come in. And water. And sleep. Lots of it. But being part of a whole city celebrating collective achievement and occasion, these are memories we will forever savor. Have you experienced it? Or your kids? Share a favorite recollection in the comments below. I’d love to hear.

2 thoughts on “You Can Leave Your Hat on — The Truth About Danish Graduation Culture and Traditions

  1. Susan

    Hi again. I’ve written to you before. 2 of our 3 kids live in Copenhagen, my husband is Danish, and my sisters in law are high school teachers there. My nieces all went through the quite boisterous graduation ceremonies. My 2 graduated high school and then college in the states, doing all night camp outs the night prior to the ceremony with s’mores and stories, campfires and midnight lake swimming. When they each graduated from their masters in Denmark, alas there was not even a diploma ceremony, so sad. I think they get that all out in the high school celebrations. Not much afterwards, except for the drinking that is, much to the delight of my son and chagrin of my daughter who’s not into that part of the culture as much. The thing they like most is the practical work life balance Denmark espouses. In that I definitely concur. He’s been there over 7 years now and she nearly 4. This may be a forever thing,, for better or worse. Luckily I like Denmark otherwise it would be tough being so far away.

    1. Hi Susan! My eldest is hoping to return to Denmark for a Masters Degree – I’ll let him know not to expect such a grand celebration post diploma. That work life balance is pretty good in a safe clean country to boot. Thanks for reading and your comment, cheers from here.

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