Rites of Passage: How Our Ancestors Handled the Teen Years
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Rites of Passage: How Our Ancestors Handled the Teen Years

We talk about adolescence in a lighthearted way. It is the years parents get more gray hair and teens master social media and sleeping in. But, for thousands of years the process of moving from childhood to adulthood was a major milestone.

Rituals vary across the globe. In South Korea and Japan they even have a Coming of Age Day. South Korea celebrates this day in May, and Japan holds similar festivities in January.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Arizona have found these rituals are more important in pre-industrial communities. Gender roles and tasks are crucial for community survival there. These rituals are less recognized in many modern communities, and when they are, they are often less formal.

Young Adults gather for a Coming of Age Day celebration. Photo: Dick Johnson, Creative Commons License

Japan: Seijin no Hi (成人の日 or Coming of Age Day)

Japan celebrate the “Seijin no Hi” holiday every January. This national holiday called Adults’ Day, which celebrates 20th birthdays throughout Japan. Most Japanese men wear suits on this special event. Other people prefer simple Kimono with Hakana, a form of Japanese clothing. Japanese women also generally wear furisode, a tradition style Kimono with dangled shoulders. Furisodes are expensive. The garments are often passed down from parents to the new adults.

The celebration of coming-of-age has deep roots in Japanese culture, dating back to at least the Nara period (710-794 AD). The practice for nobility at first. Ceremonies introduced young boys to adulthood with Shinto rituals and formal attire. Over time, these traditions spread to other social classes.

In modern times, the Japanese government revived the tradition with Seijin no hi, held on January 15th, to encourage the young to embrace their new responsibilities. The official ceremony, organized by local communities, symbolizes this transition. It’s marked by formal speeches, acknowledgments, and rituals.

The practice is transitioning, however. Modern Japanese mark the day with more informal festivities. These might include traveling around Japan or visiting Disneyland Tokyo.

Brazil: The Amazonian Welcome to Adulthood Young Men

The physical demands for boys can be more intense during these ceremonies. One common example is the bullet ant initiation of the Amazonian Sateré-Mawé tribe in Brazil. Boys wear woven gloves full of bullet ants.

A bullet ant sting is 30 times more painful than a bee sting. Those who have been stung say the pain is like being shot, thus the nickname ‘bullet ants.’ Aside from pain, the toxin also causes paralysis, shaking, disorientation and hallucinations. One sting can have lasting effects for several days.

The goal is to wear them for ten minutes without crying. Congratulations. You’re a man now.

Tanzania and Kenya: The Maasai Coming of Age Ceremony

The Maasais live in parts of Kenya and Tanzania. During their coming of age ceremonies — the Eunoto for boys and the Emuratare  for girls — tribal elders sprinkle young leaders with milk and brew.

Boys between 9-15 start their journey to be warriors. Their faces are painted with red clay with white outlines painted on their bodies. They dress in the traditional attire of red blankets, black shoes and colorful beads and set off to face the physical and mental challenges out in the wilderness which forge them into strong warriors ready for the responsibilities of manhood.

The Emuratare ceremony celebrates Maasai girls becoming women. Girls wear fancy jewelry and decorate their bodies to show their readiness for marriage. They sing, dance, and learn lessons from the older women about their forthcoming roles as wives and mothers in the Masai community.

Inuits in North Baffin Island: Celebrating Cultural Heritage and Transition

Innuits have their own traditions that mark coming of age for young boys and young girls. Their ceremonies are rooted in a connection to nature and ancestral custom and emphasize the transmission of the knowledge, resilience, and skills essential for survival way up in the Arctic.

The boys about 11 or 12 head to the wilderness with their fathers. They test their hunting skills and ability to thrive in the cold harsh weather. Nowadays, young women can also participate in this “ultimate test of adulthood.” Hurray! Equality.

Apache Tribe: The Sunrise Ceremony For Young Women

Underneath the mountains of New Mexico, Apache girls prepared to pass the tests of strength, endurance and character that make girls into women. The Rite of Passages, held annually on July 4, is a four-day ceremony involving traditional dances and music. The girl takes on the role of Changing Woman, the first woman on earth and the mother of all Apache women.

Girls can dance for 12 hours straight while the elder women watch and sing. Elder women spend a year preparing the younger women for the grueling challenge. The girls will have little food or sleep during stretch. When they finish, the girl will have earned the right to live as a full-fledged Apache woman of the tribe.

Land Diving in Vanuatu

Could you bungee jump your way to manhood? Certain rites of passage are rooted in legends of folklore of a people. For example, Vanuatu “land diving,” young men leap from 100-foot-high wooden towers with vines affixed to their ankles.

This practice originates from a South Pacific legend about bravery and sacrifice in the face of death. Over time, this ritual evolved into more of a test of masculinity and courage, reflecting their cultural beliefs and values associated with adulthood. Land diving is a sign of masculinity, although the original land diver in the story was actually a woman.

The spring dry season is the time for land diving in April, May, or June. A good “land dive” is a good omen for the yam season harvest.

These coming-of-age traditions highlight the richness and complexity of various cultural practices worldwide, showcasing how different societies welcome young people into adulthood through rituals.

Gender Differences in Rites of Passage

Gender roles influence coming-of-age ceremonies performed in cultures around the world. Rituals for girls tend to focus on fertility or beauty. These include hair pinning ceremonies in China and the makeup and jewelry ceremonies in Sri Lanka. On the other hand, coming of age ceremonies for boys tend to emphasize hunting skills and the expectations of becoming hunters or warriors.

Some cultures view the transition to adulthood as a gradual process beginning in childhood, with puberty marking the culmination of physical and mental maturity. Others celebrate specific ages, like the Quinceanera in Latin America cultures, which commemorates a girl’s 15th birthday and signifies her transition into womanhood.

Teenage girls often wear gorgeous gowns for their Quinceanera.
Photo: Ms. Phoenix , CC-by-2.0 License

Use of Symbolism in Rite of Passage Ceremonies

Ceremonies can be steeped in symbolism in many cultures. The symbolism can be simple gestures, like a teen donning high heel shoes or more intricate rituals, like the facial tattoos in northern Africa that denote a woman’s stage of life or societal role.

Community Involvement in Rite of Passage Ceremonies

In many indigenous communities, the entire community joins rite of passage ceremonies, reflecting the importance of collective identity and shared cultural values. The level of community involvement varies, with some ceremonies being intimate family affairs and others encompassing the entire religious or sacred community.

Creative Common License; Photo by: TOUMOU/WLAf2015

Questions About Coming Of Age Rituals and Age Ceremonies

What is a coming of age ritual?

These rituals are a ceremony or tradition that marks transition from being a child to being an adult. This symbolizes readiness to take on new responsibilities and roles in the family and society.

Rituals of puberty vary across cultures. They often involve ceremonies to mark physical and emotional changes linked to adolescence. These might be menstruation or facial hair growth. They also prepare individuals for maturity.

These ceremonies are rituals other rites or celebrations that commemorate an individual’s transition from childhood to adulthood, often including symbolic acts, religious rites, or community gatherings to mark this important milestone.

What are the coming of age rituals in ancient times?

In ancient times, coming of age rituals varied depending on the culture but often included tests of physical endurance, initiation ceremonies, or symbolic rites performed by tribal elders or religious leaders. These signified maturity and readiness for adulthood.

What are the 5 rites of passage?

These five describes the various stages individuals undergo during significant life transitions. According to anthropologist Arnold van Gennep they are:

  1. Separation
  2. Transition
  3. Incorporation
  4. Integration
  5. Reintegration

What is the central idea of coming-of-age ceremonies across different cultures?

The central idea of coming-of-age ceremonies across different cultures is the recognition and celebration of an individual’s transition from childhood to adulthood, symbolizing their readiness to take on new roles, responsibilities, and privileges within society. In different cultures, coming-of-age signifies the moment when a young person reaches maturity. They are now an adult member of society.

What are examples rite of passages in American culture?

  • High school graduation
  • Bar and bat mitzvahs
  • Cotillion
  • Quinsenera
  • Confirmation
  • Sweet sixteen party
  • Turning 21
  • Registering to vote
  • Registering for selective service
  • Military service
  • Getting a driver’s license

These coming of age practices from land diving to dancing are just some of the ways various cultures have helped welcome young people into adulthood over the centuries. To learn more about cultures around the world, consider a student travel program for yourself or a teen in your family!

About the Author

Scott Ingram

Scott is the Director of Admissions at Rustic Pathways. He has spent the last 15 years in the student travel and experiential education world. Before helping families find the perfect Rustic Pathways program, he led gap year programs that took students around the world and spent three years teaching English in Japan.