In New Zealand, I learned from my academic counterparts there, the university graduation ceremony is called "capping," and is held in May.
I also learned that the school year there runs from March through November. So naturally I asked, "What has May got to do with graduation?"Years ago, the Kiwi academics explained, the students' final examinations were sent to England by ship for grading, and the results never arrived back in New Zealand until the following May. So the students wisely postponed their celebrations.
Nowadays the local teachers grade their own exams, but the graduation rituals have remained unchanged. The graduates celebrate their liberation by putting on satiric stage shows, publishing humorous magazines, going on "pub crawls" and perpetrating elaborate practical jokes, which have come to be known as "capping stunts."
In one classic capping stunt, students told a crew of road repairmen that if some police tried to stop their work, they should ignore them, since the police were merely students pretending to be cops. Then the students called the police and reported that a group of students posing as road repairmen were tearing up a stretch of highway.
But Moira Smith, a folklorist who is writing her doctoral thesis about capping traditions, told me that the prank, although well known, evidently never happened. Everybody seems to have heard about it, but nobody witnessed the incident firsthand. Sounds like an urban legend to me!
Many of the capping stunts involve spreading a rumor that will cause the public to act in a foolish manner. One year at Victoria University, for example, graduates circulated a letter saying that a water supply dam above Wellington would burst unless every tap and hydrant in the city was opened in order to relieve the pressure.
A great many Wellington residents turned the water on.
At another university, students posted notices saying that a shipment of bananas that had recently arrived in New Zealand was contaminated, and that people should bring their urine samples to the nearest post office, where a checking station would be set up to test for the presence of disease.
It's said that before long people clutching filled sample bottles showed up at post offices.
Perhaps the most legendary capping ritual is the students' heavy drinking during capping week. At one time the pub crawls were so notorious that they became known as "the chunder mile." "Chunder" in Kiwi slang means to vomit - and that's quite enough said about the topic, I think.
The capping shows and parades often feature suggestive material and off-key bagpipe concerts by men wearing women's clothing. The same kind of humor makes up the bulk of the capping magazines.
The best capping stunt I heard about involved students from Auckland University. The students drove a hearse down a crowded city street, then pulled over to the roadside, as though the vehicle had gotten a flat tire.
After getting out the tools to change the tire, the students - all of them dressed as morticians - removed the coffin from the hearse to get at the jack stored underneath, and changed the tire.
Then they drove off, leaving the coffin behind on the pavement, with a chorus of confused Aucklanders shouting after them, "Hold on there - you've forgotten something!"
* Jan Harold Brunvand is the author of "The Mexican Pet," a collection of urban folklore. Send your questions and urban legends to Prof. Brunvand in care of this newspaper.