Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Coming-Of-Age Rituals

In many faiths & countries

From the pages of Religious Tolerance.

Coming-of-age ceremonies are held when a child or youth becomes recognized as an adult for the first time. These rituals were and are found in almost all aboriginal societies. In modern times, the transition into adulthood often happens without a formal, public celebration.

The Rites of Passage Institute of Cleveland, OH notes that: "The final entrance into adulthood has been provided from time immemorial by the 'coming of age' ceremony. Like the other major life chronicle ceremonies accompanying birth, marriage and death, the coming of age ceremony located the individual anew within the surrounding community and indeed with the universe as a whole. It was a critical moment of expansion, the entrance into larger responsibilities, larger privileges, larger secrets, larger institutions, and larger understandings. It amounted to a second birth, entry not into physical life but into higher life of culture and the spirit. Accordingly, it called for the society to display itself to full effect, giving presence to its myths and traditions, physical expression to its animating beliefs." 10

These rituals take many forms among different religions and countries:

Religiously or culturally-based observances:

Ancient Heathenism:

This is a form of Paganism. It is being reconstructed from the beliefs and practices of various ancient societies which occupied a large area of Northern Europe from Russia to Iceland. They recognize Frey, Freya, Frigg, Odin, Thor, Tyr and others as deities. One Heathen website describes a coming of age ceremony, which is typically performed on the child's birthday or on a seasonal celebration. It may involve posing a riddle, listing the child's talents, optionally choosing a new name, receiving a symbol of adulthood, welcoming the child as a new adult into the Kindred (congregation), and a giving of gifts. 4

Apache Tribe:

The Apaches are one of about 500 aboriginal societies who once occupied North America. They have a four-day rite of puberty -- the Apache Sunrise Ceremony, called "na'ii'ees." It " one of the most important events in an Apache female's life." In an act of unusual bigotry and religious intolerance, the U.S. government banned this and other ceremonies in the early 1900s. It was only decriminalized in 1978 when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was signed into law. The ritual " intended to imbue the girls with the spirit and characteristics of White Painted Woman, the Apache culture's first woman - also called Esdzanadehe or Changing Woman. The girls' skin is painted and covered with a sacred mixture of pollen and clay, which they must not wash off during the entire ceremony." The ritual itself is physically demanding. The girls have to pray, dance for hours, sit with their backs straight, and perform other physically draining activities. They are given instruction in sexuality, self-esteem, dignity, confidence, and healing ability. They are told to pray towards the east at dawn and in the four cardinal directions, which represent the four stages of life. 12


Roman Catholics: Catholics believe that Confirmation "...completes the process of initiation into the Christian community, and it matures the soul for the work ahead....During Confirmation, God the Holy Spirit comes upon the person, accompanied by God the Father and God the Son, just as he did at Pentecost." Sometimes, those who have been confirmed are called "Soldiers of Christ." This refers to their spiritual duty to fight evil, darkness and Satan. 5

Igbo tribe:

This tribe in Nigeria once had a traditional coming-of-age ritual for both boys and girls. Colonialism and oppression by the Christian church almost destroyed it. An Igbo group of African-Americans, the Otu Umunne Cultural Organization, has attempted to reconstruct the ritual in the U.S. The "...male initiates spent the night with the Otu Umunne fathers at a designated location, while the female initiates did the same with the Otu Umunne mothers" elsewhere. The children are taught teamwork, leadership, values, responsibilities, moral decisions, freedom, and valuing their heritage. Candles are lit, and prayers recited. The children pledge to conduct themselves in a manner that gives glory to God and that will command respect for them, their families abroad, in the ancestral land of the Igbo tribe -- Nigeria -- and to the American community where they live. 14


The Interfaith Families Project is composed of families from the Washington DC area which follow two religious traditions. They celebrate the passage of their children "into young adulthood and to embrace their emerging identities as adolescents." It is held during the children's 8th grade year of religious education. 3


Girls reach the status of Bat Mitzvah on their 12th birthday. Boys achieve Bar Mitzvah on their 13th birthday. They are then recognized as adults and are personally responsible to follow the Jewish commandments and laws. Males are allowed to lead a religious service. They are counted in a "minyan" -- a quota of men necessary to perform certain parts of religious services. Following their Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah they can sign contracts and testify in religious courts. In theory, they can marry, although the Talmud recommends 18 to 24 as the optimum age range for marriage.


Female Circumcision (a.k.a. female genital mutilation, female genital cutting, and FGM) is widely practiced in the Northern and Western parts of Africa. It is an invasive and painful surgical procedure that is usually performed without anesthetic on girls before puberty. Their clitoris is partially or completely removed. This inhibits or terminates sexual feelings. FGM has been a social custom in parts of Africa for many centuries. Many people incorrectly link FGM with the religion of Islam. Actually, it is a social custom that is practiced by Animists, Christians, and Muslims in those countries where FGM is common. There are many Muslim countries in which the mutilation is unknown. It is currently performed as a rite-of-passage in most of the districts of Kenya. A nongovernmental agency, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake (MYWO) has been encouraging the public to abandon FGM. They have introduced an "alternative rite" (AR) in which girls are taken to a secluded location and given family life education, including information on human sexuality. This is followed by a public graduation ceremony in which they are recognized as having become adults. 13

Unitarian Universalist

This is a unusual religion. It is composed of seekers. The purpose of the minister is not to tell the congregation what to believe and how to behave. Her or his main task is to help the membership in their own quest for truth. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Haverhill, MA has a coming of age program which is offered to the ninth grade students in their religious education courses. Each student is teamed with a mentor who is an adult volunteer from the congregation. Students learn about world religions including a detailed study of their own religion. They discuss their personal beliefs with their family, their mentor and fellow students. They are expected to spend at least five hours working on a service project. Finally, each student writes their own statement of beliefs as they currently exist. The program ends with their participation " a Sunday service that will honor their Coming of Age."

Secular-based observances:

Australia, New Zealand and many other countries:

A party called "The Twenty First" is often held to celebrate a youth having come of age. It is held on their 21st birthday.


Since 1948, people who will have their 20th birthday during a given year celebrate the Coming of Age day on the second Monday in January. It is a national holiday. The male Samurai warriors once had a similar celebration called Genpuku, which was observed between the ages of about 12 to 18. 1


The Confucian coming-of-age ceremony is called Gwallye and is held for both boys and girls aged 15 to 20. 2

References used:

  1. "Coming of Age," Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, at:
  2. "Coming -of-Age Ceremony," National Folk Museum of Korea, at:
  3. "Interfaith Families Project Coming of Age Program," Interfaith Families Project of the Greater Washington DC Area, at:
  4. Thorskegga Thorn, "Coming of age ceremony (Thorshof)," Milgard's Web, at:
  5. "Coming of Age: Confirmation," Derived from the book by John Trigilio & Kenneth Brighenti, "Catholicism for Dummies," For Dummies, (2003). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store.
  6. Laura Bryannan, "Woman Ritual," Chapter 21 from "Dancing in the Shadows," unpublished.
  7. The Ethical Society of St. Louis has a web site at: The American Ethical Union (AEU) has a web site at: The International Humanist and Ethical Union has a web site at: .
  8. "Coming of Age in the Ethical Society Sunday School," The Ethical Society of St. Louis, at:
  9. LadyHakwe (S. Michelle Koon), "Girl's/Young Woman's Coming of Age," ChristianWitches Yahoo! group, 2004-JUN-3, at:
  10. "Growing up modern - Coming of age," Rites of Passage Institute, at:
  11. "Coming of Age," Unitarian Universalist Church of Haverhill, MA, at:
  12. Paul L Allen, "Coming of age: Apache twins Fayreen and Farren Holden are welcomed into adulthood in a four-day tribal ceremony," Tucson Citizen, 2001-JUL-26, at:
  13. "Kenya Female Genital Cutting: Community sensitization must precede alternate coming-of-age rite," Population Council, 2002-MAY, at:
  14. Victoria Nneka Agu, "The 'Rite of Passage' Celebration or 'Coming of Age' in Igbo land," (2002), at:

No comments: