By Marilyn Dion, Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant®
What is Coming of Age?
Rituals marking a person’s rite of passage into adulthood have been around for thousands of years. Coming of age is determined as the time of puberty, loss of virginity, or a legally recognized age. Common significant ages are 13, 15, 16, 18, and 21. The transition can be difficult as some are hesitant to confront the challenges and hurdles when one leaves their childhood behind. It is a time of taking responsibility for one’s choices and future.
Most ancient rituals around the world involved some form of isolation and pain that was accepted in the region and culture of the area.
Between the ages of 14 and 17, a Roman boy officially became a citizen of Rome after a large procession to the Forum. His birth necklace, called a bulla, was offered to the guardian deities. His crimson bordered toga was exchanged for the pure white toga of a man. He was then required to spend a year with a man chosen by his father to learn his future duties. Roman girls as young as 12 became women on their wedding day – as an adult, their bulla and toys were discarded.
Spartan seven-year-old boys were taken from their families to attend military schools for 13 years leading up to their coming of age ritual – the krypteia. This year-long test involved wilderness living and killing the servant class. Success marked boys as men and as soldiers able to marry. Failure meant shame and forced servitude.
Pederasty, the sexual activity between a man and a boy, was also a part of the Spartan culture and considered a normal transition into adulthood. Today, the practice is considered immoral and sexually abusive.
Scarification was a common practice in Mesoamerican cultures. At a certain age, girls would receive marks on one hip and one breast and boys would have lip plugs inserted. Lessons were taught symbolic of their transition from childhood. Previously shaved boys could grow their hair at about age 10. After the capture of their first enemy at about 15, their hairstyle changed to having it long over the right ear. They were entitled to a manly haircut upon capturing a second enemy.
Noble Incan boys were smeared with a sacrificed llama’s blood, went on mountainous pilgrimages, had their legs whipped and one ear pierced with plugs – all signifying their status.
Australian elders would teach aboriginal children between the ages of 10 and16, how to survive in the wild in preparation for their initiation into adulthood with the ritual walkabout. The six-month duration of isolation without seeing another human and walking up to 1,000 miles, meant survival of the fittest. The child was meant not only to transition to adulthood but to discover himself and his spiritual guides.
Twenty-year-old Chinese males in the Zhou dynasty experienced a capping ceremony and females similarly had a hair pinning ceremony.
The Celts coming of age quest sent boys into the forest on a scavenger hunt showing members of their community their abilities and independence. As an extremely religious event, help was evoked from their gods and goddesses.
January, specifically the second Monday, is significant to the 1200-year-old Japanese coming of age festival called Seijin-no-Hi. Its purpose is to help all those who have reached the age of 20 between April 2 of the previous year and April 1 of the current year, realize they have become adults. The ceremonies held at local city offices, focus on the fact that rights, as well as responsibilities, have expanded. As contributing members of society, the new adults can vote and drink alcohol. Formal traditional clothing is worn, gifts received, and groups celebrate at after-parties.
The Amish tradition called Rumspringa begins when teenagers turn 16. They are encouraged to experience pleasures outside of their culture but must decide to return and commit to their church, way of life and their community before they turn 26.
Fathers of North Baffin Island Inuit boys between the ages of 11 and 12 traditionally took them to test their hunting skills in the harsh arctic weather. Today ‘outcamps’ away from the community teach traditional skills to both male and female youth.
Tanzanian and Kenyan Maasai tribe elders initiate 10 to 20-year-old boys into a warrior class. Their bravery is tested after festivities preparing them for circumcision – flinching would bring shame to their families. Once officially transformed into a man by the procedure, they spend the next ten years at the warrior’s camp learning many skills until they become entitled to marry.
Ogiek tribe members in Kenya paint their children white during their coming of age ritual and are told to hunt a beast with a very scary roar. The noise is made by the elders and the method proves if the youth are brave enough. Being allowed to take a turn blowing the horn establishes the child as an adult in the eyes of the tribe.
The Ethiopian Hamar cow jumping ritual must be completed if males wish to be able to marry and be considered one of the Maza or men. While naked, the boy must jump over a bull not once but four times during the three-day ceremony!
The south Pacific island of Vanuatu initiates young boys into manhood with the tradition of land diving or ‘naghol’. Unlike the bungee cord, the vine strapped to one leg is not elastic and jumping from a 98-foot-high tower is extremely dangerous. The death-defying training begins around the age of 7 or 8 albeit from a shorter tower. Mothers throw away a childhood item when their sons are ready to jump or after their first dives. The taller towers demonstrate manliness to onlookers. Outcomes are superstitiously related to harvests.
Brazil’s Satere Mawé tribe initiation is terrifyingly painful. Bullet ants, whose venom causes paralysis, shakes and 30 times more extreme pain than a bee sting, are gathered by 13-year-old boys. Elders sedate and then weave the ants into handmade gloves with the stingers pointed inwards. The gloves must be worn for at least 10 minutes and for 20 times over several months until the boy’s demonstrated pain endurance shows he has become a man.
At one time, the North American Apache sunrise ceremony known as ‘Na’ii’ees’ was a requirement of all young Apache girls during the summer after their first menstruation. Over four days rules and rituals were followed as well as praying, dancing, running, singing and chanting. The girls were painted in pollen and drank from a traditional bottle. The Apache origin legend of the White Painted Woman was reenacted enabling the girl to draw on the power of the first woman. Understanding of their own healing powers, strength and feminine mystic bonded them in their community as women. There are still a few instances of the practice today.
It is interesting to note that Korean girls are considered women when they are 15 – a full five years before the boys are considered men. Adulthood is celebrated on the third Monday of May while wearing traditional garments and receiving symbolic gifts of roses, perfume, and a kiss.
Cambodian parents prepare a feast with many guests as their children turn 14 not only to celebrate the birthday milestone but to pursue potential mates for them.
Many ethnic groups in China take part in coming of age rituals. The Confucian practice of ‘Ji Li’ for girls and the ‘Guan Li’ for boys honour those who have reached the age of 20. Ancient scrolls are read, and a new name given. The girls experience a hairpin ceremony as part of their rite of passage into womanhood.
Young girls of Pumi ancestry take part in a ritual of stepping on a bag of fat with their right foot and a bag of rice with their left, ensuring their future health and wealth. These coming of age traditions are an opportunity to dress traditionally, honour ancestors and move into the new responsibilities and challenges of becoming an adult.
Young girls who live in the Philippines look forward to the day they turn 18. A formal celebration called a debut is planned. The number 18 is significant as the lucky Filipina invites 18 important men in her life who bring her 18 roses. She invites 18 close friends who are younger to bring her eighteen wishes. Likewise, 18 family members or friends bring her eighteen treasures.
Peruvian girls on the cusp of womanhood belonging to the Tukuna tribe are painted while semi-naked three times a day and left out in tents for days. The belief is that they are exposed to a demon called ‘Noo’ and surviving the ritual turns them into women.
A sign of beauty in the Indonesian Mentawai tribe is sharp teeth. Girls transitioning to women experience a tooth sharpening ritual with no anesthetic and the only tools being a chisel and elbow grease.
Traditional Religious Rites
There are a couple of religious milestones that qualify as coming of age transitions. Children become adults in the eyes of their church or synagogue.
The Bar (for boys) or Bat (for girls) Mitzvah of Judaism signifies a child’s movement into adulthood after years of Hebrew and Torah study. These joyful events are celebrated because Jewish law requires observation of the commandments or mitzvahs at the age of 13 (for boys) and age 12 (for girls). Each child becomes a mature person in the eyes of the community.
Both Catholic and Protestant churches celebrate the sacrament of Confirmation or First Holy Communion. Teens study articles of faith and make their pledge to their church and their faith. Taking this step is a sign of becoming an adult and closer to God.
Hispanic girls who turn 15 celebrate their Quinceanera. The tradition begins with a renewal of faith vows and commitment to family at a Catholic mass. The fiesta following the mass thanks God for blessings and showcases the new woman to her community. Traditionally she would gift a porcelain doll to her younger sister (if she has one) – symbolic of giving up her childhood.
Circumcised boys and eleven-year-old Malaysian Muslim girls prepare for years to celebrate Khatam Al Koran. After studying and reciting the final chapter of the Koran for their community at their local mosque, they have demonstrated their maturity and may be called an adult.
Secular Coming of Age Ceremonies
Preparing teens for their lives as adults for those not associated with religions, necessitate choosing secular or civil ceremonies. There are some non-religious organizations who arrange these rites of passage, especially in several European countries. There are themed Prometheus camps that explore topics such as sexuality, addiction, prejudice, and personal relationships through discussions, art, drama, and games. These weeklong camps culminate in a ceremony where participants chronicle their week and receive diplomas, medallions, and leaf crowns – all to signify they are new adults in the community.
Modern Coming of Age Celebrations
There are several modern coming of age celebrations in North America. The sweet 16 birthday celebration marks the age when youth are legally allowed to drive a car. The freedom that goes with the driving privilege feels liberating. Some wealthier families give extravagant parties and a car.
The main countries that still introduce young women from wealthy or upper-class families to “polite society” at debutante balls are America, Austria, Australia and the United Kingdom. Debutante balls are likely to raise money for charity or society organizations. Sponsorship, formal dress, and ballroom dancing are required as young women known as debutantes are introduced to society during their ‘coming out’ for the social season.
A promenade dance known as a Prom or Grad marks the completion of a high school milestone and is associated with the first formal adult social event. Parents rent limos and tuxedos, ball gowns are worn, and corsages are given. After-parties have also become traditional.
Coming of Age Challenges
It’s not easy leaving childhood behind to find one’s own identity on the path to adulthood. Separating from a parent’s safety net and fear of an unknown future can cause great anxiety, disappointment, and emotional pain. On the one hand, the experience can be sad and scary and on the other exciting and rewarding.
Designing your Own
Perhaps as a mom, you want to mark the beginning of your daughter’s menstruation. Recognizing the change with a piece of jewelry or lunch is a way for you to congratulate her on becoming a woman.
A mother-son or father-daughter date, hike, or bike ride when teens reach a certain age opens the door to communication. Send your kid to camp or let them help plan family trips. Help your teen decide to volunteer and give back to the world. The important thing is to offer ideas and listen to your child’s input. Whatever is decided, your child will know you value them, and you will have an impact when you invest your time and effort in them.
What can be really rewarding is a meaningful process and ceremony designed with your child in mind. A multi-generational coming of age circle for a daughter established to meet a few times during a chosen year to spend time sharing personal stories, myth, wisdom, and exploring the natural world gives a sense of community. The meetings culminate in a ceremony with an appropriate ritual marking a new phase of life.
By giving credence to character traits and values and teaching life skills, teens can be guided by their significant family members into a deeper understanding as to what it means to be an adult. Cultures around the world recognize the importance of coming of age rituals to help children navigate the transition from childhood to becoming an adult.
Ron Fritz, a father of three and CEO of an international technology company, created coming of age events and rituals with lessons, a sense of challenge, and community for each of his children making a positive impact on them. Challenges he devised included tests of life skills, resourcefulness, patience and determination. Fake job interviews with harsh feedback, changing a bike tire under pressure, a timed mile run, and 25 minutes to build an Ikea bookcase while babysitting two preschoolers were some of the tasks. He arranged for ten men, both family and friends, to be spaced five minutes apart on a trail. Each walked with his son sharing wisdom by answering the question “What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self?”
When designing a significant passage ritual, incorporating the following elements can have a positive impact: contact with nature, tests of courage, self-discipline and strength, physical withdrawal (solitude), public recognition by one’s own community, and symbolic objects representing the past and the new status.
We can and we should commemorate the transitions in our children’s lives. Our modern society is beginning to see a resurgence of coming of age, as well as innovative coming out, new driver and crones’ ceremonies, including those created by master Life-Cycle Celebrants trained by the International Celebrant Foundation and Institute. If you would like assistance creating meaningful unique ceremony for members of your family contact The Celebrant Foundation and Institute