As we advanced technologically as a society, we lost many beautiful traditions that celebrated life, including coming of age rituals.
What do Americans think of when they hear the word “adulthood”? Most people probably think of moving out, going to college, paying the bills, or figuring out what to do for a living. This philosophy on growing up is pretty boring and robotic, if you ask me. We’ve even got a word for this – adulting – and I don’t like it. Because these are all ideas of womanhood and manhood that aren’t even our own; they’re a result of a money-hungry society ruled by corporations.
In my opinion, aging is a beautiful process. You’re growing by experience, you make “mistakes,” and you reach new milestones. Without your parents and teachers telling you what’s what, you have no choice but to figure out the universe through your own lens. This, to me, is what becoming an adult truly means. The “coming of age” event shouldn’t be a list of goals an adult is expected to accomplish because it’s way more profound than that.
Coming of age rituals are so common that they’re practiced all over the world, and not all of them are celebrated in the same way. It seems that many cultures can agree that becoming an adult is a huge stepping stone in a kid’s life that’s worth the festivity and commemoration. Quinceañeras, sweet sixteens, and bar/bat mitzvahs are all awesome examples of “coming of age” traditions you may have heard of that celebrate a child’s transition into adulthood.
Traditions bring people together in an act of mindfulness in a world that’s constantly acting on autopilot and unconscious habits. Coming of age rituals recognize the turning point in someone’s life where they’re deemed ready to create a reality of their own. Bringing awareness to someone’s transition into adulthood gives them a sense of purpose in society by creating a sort of structure by hierarchy. Having a sense of identity is important; otherwise, we feel lost without it.
So let’s go over some of these beautiful coming of age rituals practiced by other cultures and learn from them.
1. Norwegian Confirmation Ceremony
Confirmation comes from the Latin word “confirmare,” which means to strengthen, build up, and develop. This tradition was legally required in Protestant Christian Norway starting in 1763 to gain “the rights of adulthood,” until 1912, when it became voluntary. Historically, a confirmation certificate was necessary to enter the military, get married, or testify in court. Confirmation was required to take place by the age of 19.
A confirmation certificate was necessary to enter the military, get married, or testify in court.
Today, Norwegians go to church and confirm their baptismal promises at age 15. They often wear their traditional Norwegian costume and celebrate with a party afterward, at which parents impart their wisdom to their teenager.
But some people who celebrate it aren’t necessarily religious; in fact, anyone can celebrate their confirmation into adulthood. For those who don’t practice Christianity, they can go to a town hall to graduate and receive diplomas for their coming of age celebration. Besides age, the confirmation also marks the stepping stone into high school and employment or apprenticeship.
2. The Zulu Tribe and Umemulo
The Zulu tribe is native to southeastern Africa, with a large population of 10-12 million. They celebrate the women’s transition into adulthood when they turn 21, and it’s called Umemulo. A week before the celebration, the young lady and her friends are taken to a secluded hut to prepare. The young lady takes a virginity test (but it’s not mandatory). She also learns what it means to be a woman, and they all practice a specific dance called ukusina, which they will perform at the ritual.
On the day of the celebration, her family slaughters a cow or a goat to eat. A wristband is made from the animal hide for the young woman to wear. The Zulu believe the wristband connects the woman to her ancestors for protection. The women wear colorful beads, cowhide skirts, and bright, multi-colored hats. They dance the ukusina carrying spears, which symbolize strength and victory. They’re given presents and money by their parents. Traditionally, the Umemulo signaled that the woman was now available for marriage.
3. Japan and Coming of Age Day
Seijin no Hi, or Coming of Age Day, is a national holiday celebrated in Japan every year on the second Monday of January. This is a special day held for Japanese citizens who turned 20 (which is the legal adult and drinking age in Japan) the year before, and it encourages them to become self-reliant adults. Coming of Age Day ceremonies are usually held in city halls and other official centers, and often include a speech by the mayor.
Japan has a national holiday to celebrate and recognize the new adults that year.
Women typically rent and wear kimonos while the men wear suits. Those commemorating their adulthood participate with their families and take pictures with them. Afterwards, they go to the local shrine to pray for success and good luck on their new journeys. Sometimes, the new adults end the celebration by going out drinking with their friends. Thousands celebrate Seijin no Hi in Japan, but due to the declining birth rate, the number of attendees has dwindled every year.
4. Quinceañeras in Spain, Mexico, and Latin America
Beautiful, colorful, bright gowns and makeup are the hallmark of a quinceañera. Girls celebrate this day when they turn 15, hence the word quince (for 15) and anos (years). The quinceañera marks the girl’s entrance into womanhood and signals she is ready to assume family and social responsibilities.
The lavish celebration usually starts with Mass at church, where thanks is given by the attendees for the girl’s transition into womanhood. The young lady wears a full-length ball gown in the color of her choice. She often wears a tiara and has a matching bouquet. After Mass, the extravagant party ensues! The banquet decorations often match the girl’s dress, and she may partake in certain customs, like being presented with a bouquet of flowers that symbolizes the first flowers she receives as an adult. The party will last several hours, and everyone dances, eats, drinks, and has fun!
5. The Philippine Debut
In the Philippines, women who turn 18 have their “debut,” a celebration pretty similar to the quinceañera. This is because the Philippines were under Spanish rule from 1565 to 1898. In a debut, the parents give a speech to the daughter and the attendees, and 18 men give 18 roses to the birthday girl. They then dance with her one by one, with the last dance being with her father.
Next, 18 female friends and family members will each share about their relationship with the debutante and give her their good wishes. They will each light a candle.
18 men give 18 roses to the birthday girl.
An important part of the debut is the “Cotillion,” a waltz that the young lady, her escort, and her whole entourage perform (and which they’ve practiced for a long time).
The debut ends with the debutante giving a speech, talking about what life lessons she’s learned and thanking her family and friends for their support. The debut ends with everyone dancing and enjoying the party!
6. The Apache Tribe and the Sunshine Ceremony
The Sunrise Ceremony is a four-day celebration that Apache women celebrate after receiving their first period.
Today, the ceremony is preceded by about six months of preparation. The girl’s traditional and symbolic costume must be made, and she must physically train for the ceremony.
Once the ceremony begins, the girl is guided through it by her sponsor and the medicine man. The ceremony includes hours of dancing – during the day and the night – as well as chanting, singing, and praying. The girl will also run in all four directions of the compass to represent the four stages of life. She's painted with a sacred mixture of cornmeal and clay.
She will re-enact the White Painted Woman’s story. The White Painted woman is the first woman in Apache mythology and a deity who embodies maturity, femininity, tradition, and cycles. The Apache believe that by taking part in the ritual, the White Painted Woman will ensure that the girls who have reached maturity will be promised a long and happy life.
On the last day of the ceremony, the girl will bless her people with pollen, “heal” them with her touch, and receive gifts from them.
So you see, the coming of age celebrations come in all different shapes and sizes from everywhere. But even though there are differences in the way cultures celebrate this event, they all have one thing in common – the transition to womanhood and manhood is not to be taken lightly. It’s a pivotal moment in one’s life that gives them meaning and purpose in the world, all while celebrating it with people who cherish them the most. It’s a truly profound way of celebrating the natural way of aging and living, and I believe more people would find more meaning in life if we did the same.
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