In Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, it’s all about the big three birthdays: 16, 18 and 21. These are celebrated largely due to their legal importance in the Western world, with freedoms like driving, voting and buying alcohol bestowed around these ages. In other cultures, though, different birthdays are considered significant milestones, and are celebrated with special rituals and traditions.
Here what you might have been invited to in place of the standard birthday invitations, if you lived elsewhere in the world.
The first birthday is always exciting, but in some cultures it is more significant than others. Infant mortality was historically very high in many places around the world, so the first birthday became a milestone at which point the family could begin dreaming for the child’s future. A ritual known as doljabi is performed in some East Asian countries, thought to predict the fortune of the baby. A variety of items are laid in front of the child, and whatever they pick up first is considered indicative of their future. Common items include coins (symbolises wealth), pencils or pens (symbolises intelligence), paintbrushes (symbolises artistic skill) and similar things. Religious iconography may be included, and thread is usually offered too. If the baby selects the thread, it is supposed to mean that they will live a very long life.
In many cultures, the beginning of the teen years is considered significant for its links to the onset of puberty and the child’s changing body and mind. One of the most familiar coming of age celebrations is the bar mitzvah. The bar mitzvah is a Jewish rite of passage that is celebrated when boys turn 13. A similar event called a bat mitzvah is held for girls when they turn 12. Each of these events mark the age at which children become accountable for their own actions. Usually the child will be called upon to read from the Torah during the Shabbat service, recite passages of Scripture, say a blessing and other rituals of significance in the Synagogue. A large party usually follows which is much like a normal birthday party but often much larger in scale. Some of these parties are similar in size and significance to a wedding reception.
Many other cultures mark the age of 13 in their own way. The Sateré-Mawé tribe in the Brazilian Amazon have a tradition called the bullet ant initiation. Bullet ants are given their name because their sting is so painful it has been compared to getting shot. They have the most painful sting of any animal on record: a pain that combines burning, stinging and aching and grows more excruciating for hours afterwards, continuing for some 24 hours after the sting actually happens. Hundreds of these vicious stinging ants are sedated and woven into gloves with their stingers facing inwards. When they are no longer under the sedation they become (understandably) angry at their predicament, which is central to the task at hand (no pun intended). The birthday boy must put the gloves on and wear them for ten minutes, during which time his hands and arms shake uncontrollably and then become paralysed from the venom. This initiation first takes place when the boy is 13, but must be endured twenty times over the course of several months for the boy to officially be considered a man.
In many Hispanic cultures, the 15th birthday is particularly significant for girls, and a traditional coming of age party is thrown. English-speaking Latino communities call this party a quinceanera, but in Spanish this term means ‘fifteen year old girl’ and is used to refer to the birthday girl herself. The party differs across the many nations where it is celebrated, but it is usually similar to a deb ball: An elaborate ball gown is worn, along with a tiara, and a bouquet of flowers is carried. There is dancing and feasting, may be rituals like a candle ceremony or a transition from flat shoes to high heels, and a Catholic mass may be incorporated. The celebration is usually very elaborate and expensive, comparable to a wedding.
Historically, Latin girls were expected to be married at 15 and were taught to cook, clean and sew in the leadup to their fifteenth birthday to ensure they would be fit for a husband.The birthday was then a celebration of this monumental transition to womanhood. It was the first time the woman danced in public, wore makeup, and wore high heels. Now, of course, these aspects are often merely symbolic as strict tradition has loosened.
Many Asian countries have coming of age days for young people when they are 20 years old.
Japan’s coming of age day is held each year in January to celebrate all those who turned 20 during the previous year. This is considered the age at which one becomes an adult. Ceremonies are held at local government offices where speeches are made and gifts presented. Women usually wear a traditional kimono and men wear a suit. Parties are usually thrown after the official ceremonies.
A Confucian coming of age ceremony was traditionally held in China for men at age 20 and for women at age 15, but when practiced today it is usually held for both genders at 20. While the ceremony died off for a time, it has been resurging in popularity as people grow more in touch with their heritage and cultural traditions. The day is celebrated once a year for everyone who came of age during the prior year, rather than on individual’s birthdays. Traditionally, men participate in a capping ceremony (Guan-li) during which their hair is put into a bun and they receive a ceremonial cap. Women have a hairpinning ceremony (Ji-li) that is similar, in which their hair is taken out of the traditional braids, washed and put into a top knot secured with gold, jade or wooden hair pins. Every different ethnic minority in China has its own unique accompanying traditions.
In Korea a similar event is held in May each year. Traditional clothing is worn, and ceremonies are held for boys and girls. Like in China, boys have their hair combed into a bun and are given a hat, while women have their hair fastened with a hairpin. Participants are ceremonially given their first drink of alcohol, and often pay a visit to ancestral shrines. Those celebrating are usually given flowers, perfume and a kiss.
The Chinese lunar calendar runs on a sixty year cycle, so it is considered very significant when someone has their 60th birthday. While this dating system is primarily ceremonial now, it has not only been observed in China itself, but in nations such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. Because of the way this calendar works, the sixtieth birthday is traditionally considered the end of a life cycle and the beginning of a new one. It is considered a time of rebirth and new life and has been celebrated for this symbolism. This birthday was even more significant in times when it was unlikely that you would live to be sixty, so has lost some of its importance as life expectancy has risen.
In China this occasion is called Jiazi, in Japan it is Kanreki and in Korea it is known as Hwangap, but all three celebrations are similar. The party is traditionally thrown by the children of the person who is turning sixty, and involves great feasting and gathering of family and friends. Foods such as uncut noodles and eggs are featured due to their symbolism of long life and new beginnings.
It’s always fascinating to think about different ways of doing things and the cultures that contribute to these differences, especially when it comes to things we usually don’t think about! Sometimes the milestones are all about perspective.
If you are looking for ideas to celebrate your special occasion, see our list of Top Birthday Party Ideas