History and introduction of the Quinceanera Traditions

Quinceanera is the Spanish word for a 15 year old girl. In Latin America however, it is the name given for the coming of age celebration on a girl’s birthday party. This is one of the most widespread Latin American celebrations that are celebrated all the way from Argentina to Mexico. Among the Aztec Indians, a girl was considered ready for marriage at the age of 15. This celebration sprung up as a result of this important age. Parents were supposed to beseech their girls-now-turned-women to become good outstanding wives in the future.

In 1520, the Spanish attacked and invaded what we know as the modern day Mexico and took over their leadership. They brought their foreign influence to the indigenous traditions that existed already among the Aztecs. These are the likely roots of the Quinceanera celebrations.

Traditionally, these parties were meant for the upper-class society. As we know the celebration as of today, it is a celebration that is celebrated by up to 440,000 Hispanic girls every year as they turn 15 and by thousands of other girls in Central America. These occasions were originally reserved for the high and mighty in society but this changed as more Latin people have migrated into the United States and made it more of an expression of their ethnic origins. The celebration is now wide spread among the socio-economic classes of the USA and the Latin American region. This great event has been able to transverse boundaries and is now even celebrated on the Cuban Island. These parties are now established as their way of celebrating the past as a girl and welcoming the future as a woman, ready for responsibilities.

The celebration has had a rough history with the Catholic Church surprisingly. This is because the lavish air that comes with the celebration was threatening to overthrow every other celebration. The spiritual aspect of this celebration, in as much as it is honored, became a problem when the quinceanera parties became so many that they were starting to interfere with the religious spirit especially when the budgets rocketed beyond $25,000. Certain steps have since been taken by the church, such as blessing many quince girls at once and limiting the number of quince parties during mass. Even these constraints have not been able to stop all the pomp and color that comes with these celebrations. The quinceanera industry rakes in a lot of money, up to $400,000 in the US alone. All this is as a result of the Quinceanera traditions involving many aspects such as venues, invitations, cake, beverages and gifts for the girl. The lavish style of these parties has enabled them to become a major part of tradition and an honored method of celebrating transition to adulthood for girls. Since 2007 in Mexico City, business owners and non-profit organizations started sponsoring annual city wide celebrations for the poorer girls in society, so that they could also get a taste of the special celebration that was widely restricted to the richer Hispanics.

There are several fun quinceanera traditions that are worth discussing and they include:

The ceremony

This typically begins as a mass at the Catholic Church. It is celebrated here as a thanks-giving mass. The birthday girl enters the church in a procession like that of a wedding. She walks in with a court of young men and women. They are usually fourteen ladies and their fourteen escorts plus her parents and godparents. The girl is allowed to choose readings that she would like to read or will appoint a family member to read for her. After the readings at mass and the gospel and homily, the girl proceeds to renew the vows she made at baptism and then the next step is to commit herself to the Virgin Mary and most importantly, God. This is when the girl’s parents and god parents can present her with lavish gifts off all sorts. After service, the young lady can now make a devotion to the Virgin Mary by presenting her with a flower or a bouquet to the statue at the church where she attended her mass. The priest then has the duty of blessing the quinceanera, which is just the beginning of the real celebrations, sounds exciting!

If however, the quinceanera is not Catholic, there are alternative churches where they can have ceremonies or they could have the ceremony completely separated from the church service. In such cases, the families write their own ceremonies and can choose one family member to preside over the ceremony and even officiate all the blessings.

The quinceanera has a court of young people, as mentioned earlier, fourteen damas (girls) and fourteen chambelans (boys) that accompany her during the ceremony. Each of these pairs represent the fourteen years that she has lived as a child and is now ready to leave behind. Some families always opt for just fourteen maids or just fourteen chambalens.

The girl usually asks her family and friends to be the ones making up her court. Just like in a wedding where all maids wear matching gowns, all the girls are expected to wear the same gowns while the men wear matching tuxedos. Etiquette demands that it is the birthday girl’s duty to inform each member that she chooses for her court what she requires in terms of the dressing.

The dance with the father

This is one of the most interesting quinceanera traditions. Customarily, the first dance is usually for the quinceanera and her father. The song is usually chosen by the father of the girl and usually the song has great significance to the pair. According to tradition, this is a girl’s first public dance and usually, the father hands the girl over to her escort after this first dance. At the same time, the maidens and their escorts enjoy the dance. This dance also acts as an emphasis on the role of the father as the first man in the quinceanera’s life.

The Waltz

The Waltz is a well choreographed traditional dance routine that is usually performed by the quinceanera and her court. To achieve finesse with the dance, it usually takes long and tedious months of practice, but it is all worth it as it is every girl’s dream to make their celebration perfect. Some families even choose to hire Waltz instructors to train the court for the celebrations; it all depends on the family budget.

Some birthday girls consider the Waltz to be very traditional and old fashioned and it is easy to find them choosing a more modern form of dance for their court. Some choose an elegant form of Waltz and blend it in with another modern choreographed type of dance.

The gown

This is the equivalent of a wedding dress on a bride when it comes to the quinceaneras. This dress is typically the first adult dressing that the girl will wear, as per the tradition started by the Duchess of Alba in Spain many years ago. These dresses are basically that look like princess dresses because they have layers of tulle netting. Some other girls opt for gowns made of silk or taffeta, the most common colors at these parties are white and pink, as they are the traditional colors but some girls may opt on a different color, depending on the family’s level of strictness. These colors usually stay within the pastel family. It is tricky to use any other color apart from white in some parts where the color white may be valued as a color that symbolizes purity and virginity. In such places, the family of the girl might be criticized a lot should they choose any other color. Modesty is also required when it comes to the dressing at quinceanera parties. This is why during mass, some of the girls wear shawls and jackets over their dresses and later on after the service, remove them. Some prefer the really modestly designed dresses only.

The food

This quinceanera tradition is usually a great pointer of the social class, the financial resources, and sometimes the culture of the region. Furthermore, any celebration is not complete without a feast. The family of the girl and the neighbors are the ones tasked with the duty of helping to prepare the food that is eaten during celebrations. In the modern day and with increasing wealth, people are able to hire the services of experts such as caterers to take care of the food during such events. Mexicans usually have a variety of foods including but not limited to chicken mole, tamales, enchiladas and even the staple foods in the area like beans and rice.

The cake and treats

Just like in a wedding, the cake at a quinceanera party is the centerpiece of the party. Some prefer the almond meringue cake while others like the spongy one known as tres leches , which is made up of three types of milk. This can also be provided by the caterers as of the modern day requirements but could also be made within the confines of the home if the family has the means by which they can bake. The customary treats at quinceanera parties are basically cookies known as bizcochitos.

Changing of shoes

This is one more popular tradition of the quinceanera parties. It is also a role, which like the dancing part, which is played by the parents. So, what happens is that, one of the quinceanera’s parents will take off their girl’s shoes and replace them with a pair of heels. This is her first pair of heeled shoes. They are a symbol of growth and responsibility on the girl’s part; they are also a sort of symbolism for the girl stepping up in society to become an adult woman.

Toast to the daughter

This is yet another role played by the quinceanera’s parents. Here, her parents will make a toast to her, while emphasizing her achievements and virtues. This is their chance to praise their girl for the good work she has done in her life thus far. This is a moment of pride for both the girl and her parents as it is important for the public in getting to know her just a little bit better. It is the final step in the quinceanera celebrations where parents have a chance to endorse their young adult.

The sponsors

In the quinceanera celebrations, as you have probably noticed, there is a lot of pomp and glory that comes with the celebrations. This means that they incur high bills in preparation for the celebration. Even the rich families that throw these parties sometimes have to rely on others to help them bear the burden of costs. The parents of the girl usually cover a bigger part of the bill, while traditionally; members of the family and the neighbors can help to cover the remaining expenses. The parties are about doing whatever it takes to make the day as big and special as possible for the birthday girl. The people who agree to pay for certain aspects of these celebrations are usually called madrinas and padrinos which mean godmothers and godfathers respectively. Traditionally, the way to handle the sponsors is to ask each one of them to foot a certain bill element during the festivities such as cost of cake while the others take up the cost of the band or deejay.

Candle lighting

This is a quinceanera tradition that involves choosing fifteen people inclusive of close family members to carry candles. This part of the ceremony is especially emotional because this is where the quinceanera has the chance to honor the people she considers most vital in her life. She often selects fifteen people, including her parents, siblings, neighbors and even friends and dedicates a candle to each of them. Some girls choose to make the fourteen people her damas, with the fifteenth being her mother.

The deejay or master of ceremony usually calls up each of the fifteen members one by one and maybe plays a special song for them as requested by the birthday girl as she presents each of them with a candle. In the process of the candle presentation, she will give a speech, about how each of those individuals helped her to achieve maturity and how they are special to her. In some quinceanera parties however, it can be a bit different in that, the fifteen people the quinceanera chooses are the ones who will talk about her and not the other way round.

Marking of the firsts

So far, we have seen the quinceanera as the platform in which a girl comes out as an adult. It is during the celebration that she has her first public dance and still, where she wears her first pair of heels to symbolize her maturity. Many times, it is also after the first quinceanera that a girl is officially allowed to date. Traditionally though, this celebration was meant to introduce the girl to the public as eligible for marriage, because fifteen is considered too young in today’s age, they are generally just allowed to interact with the opposite sex through dating and not necessarily marriage. This was also the first time a girl was allowed to wear make-up such as lipstick traditionally. This was all in a bid to mark her entry into adulthood. Today, however, you find that by age fifteen when most girls are having their quinceanera parties, they are already using make up.

The crowning of the quinceanera

Traditionally, the parents of the quinceanera buy her a tiara and scepter as gifts for her special day. This is just a symbolism also of the girl’s coming of age and maturity and responsibility. The crowning is usually done by her mother; the headpiece she wears is replaced by the tiara or crown. It is at this time that the quinceanera can also be given her scepter. This is always a moment of pride for both the parents and the girl as it is a confirmation that she turned out so beautifully in the end and is now ready to soar on her own wings.

The reception of gifts

Another major aspect of quinceanera traditions is the reception of gifts by the girl. The gifts that a birthday girl receives during quinceanera parties are mostly those suggest maturity and responsibility while transiting into adulthood. This is where the gift of ‘the last doll’ comes in. this custom is thought to have originated from Mexico while others think it came with the Puerto Ricans. Basically, the doll given to the girl is usually a porcelain doll dressed like the quinceanera. Some families choose to have ribbons with the girls name and that date pinned on to the doll to give to the guests as they leave the party. The doll however, is left with the girl as her last doll and as a symbol of her passage from childhood to adulthood.

Other gifts given to the girl during the quinceanera may include a bible, medal or a cross, the rosary. This gifts fall under religion and so are typically given during the thanks giving mass.

Another beautiful gift that the birthday girl receives during the mass is fifteen roses from her grandparents. The petals of the flowers are a representation of sweetness while the stems of the roses represent her strength. The parents can also choose to give the birthday girl a tiara and a scepter too; some cultures however use a birthstone and bracelet as the traditional way of representing coming of age and femininity.

Other interesting traditions of the quinceanera celebrations include how a girl is serenaded by a Mariachi band the night before her party, right in front of her house. That is such a sweet welcome into the world of adulthood, which is full of responsibility and requires a girl to act with maturity.

Conclusion

While a quinceanera celebration can come out as largely extravagant, it has a lot of deep symbolism behind it that makes it well worth the price. Traditionally, society places more responsibilities on the girl once the ceremony is over. She is now deeply immersed in her household duties, she is expected to cater for family needs when she can, she can volunteer and she is even seen as eligible for marriage. After this, it is believed that the young adult will live a dedicated life full of moral and devotion, which leads to a wholesome lifestyle. The quinceanera is a form of thanks giving to God for enriching lives with the presence of the quinceanera.

This event is binding too as it brings family, friends and even neighbors of the girl right from the planning to the actual celebration. It promotes cohesion and unity as seen in the planning process whereby everyone is responsible for a small part of the contribution. It is only in this way that such big and successful parties can be made. The income of the girl’s family has a lot of influence, therefore in how her party will come out. Richer families of course generally have bigger and better parties than the less privileged ones and some cities have thus taken steps to help ensure that as many girls as possible are able to at least have a celebration of this particular birthday. This has been done through entities such as NGOs and sponsors who are the richer people in society.

The first stop of the celebration being in church points to the spiritual relevance of the ceremony. This means it is a vow to keep upright and pure on the girl’s side. It is important for a girl to honor the promises made at the altar because they are vows to God made before a congregation.  While this celebration is competing with others such as weddings in terms of extravagance and cost, it goes far beyond the surface. It is important in the life of a young girl.