What is a quinceanera?
This article is a beginner’s guide to the Quinceanera traditions featured at coming of age parties. Quinceanera traditions can be found all over the Spanish speaking world. They are now eclipsing Sweet Sixteen as the dominant teenage birthday girl celebration in the United States. First of all, you’ve probably heard of the party name, but what does it even mean? Quinceanera is the Spanish word for a 15 year old birthday girl. In Latin American culture, the name also refers to the coming-of-age celebration that reigns in a girl’s 15th birthday party.
This is one of the most widespread Latin American celebrations, experienced and celebrated all the way from Argentina to the United States. 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 in South, Central, and North America. It is also a tradition that dates back to the times of the ancient Aztecs.
History of the quinceanera
Among the Aztec Indians, a girl was considered ready for marriage at the age of 15. The celebration that came to be known as the quinceanera sprang up as a result of this important age. Parents were supposed to beseech their girls to become good and outstanding wives in the future.
In 1520, the Spanish attacked the Aztecs, invading what we now know as the modern day Mexico. They oppressed, colonized, and eventually intermixed with the Aztec people. The Spanish brought their foreign influence to the indigenous traditions that already existed among the Aztecs. These are the likely roots of the quinceanera celebrations.
Traditionally, these parties were meant for the upper-class society. This has changed as more Latin people have migrated into the United States. For these immigrants, the quinceanera is a fun and family-centric expression of their ethnic origins. The celebration is now widespread 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 in Cuba. These parties are now established as their way of celebrating the past as a girl. Furthermore, the parties serve to welcome the future as a woman.
The celebration has surprisingly had a rough patch with the Catholic Church. This is because the lavish air that comes with the celebration was threatening to overthrow every other celebration. The spiritual and religious aspect of this celebration is still very much honored. But, it became a problem for the church when quinceanera parties became so popular as to represent competition. The competition with religious spirit and traditional church was evident especially when quinceanera budgets rocketed beyond $25,000. Certain steps have since been taken by the church, such as blessing many quince girls at once. Another church attempt to clamp down on the competition aspect has been 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. quinceanera traditions, both old school and modern, are as popular as ever.
The quinceanera industry rakes in a lot of money. The average spending today for one party runs over $15,000 per girl in the US. All this comes as a result of the quinceanera traditions involving many aspects. For example, venues are enlisted, invitations made, cakes prepared, and beverages served. Of course, the gifts for the birthday girl top the list.
Since 2007 in Mexico City, business owners and non-profit organizations have sponsored annual city wide celebrations. This allows girls of lower incomes to participate and be celebrated as well. Quinceanera inclusivity like this approach in Mexico helps reduce social inequalities, even if just for a day.
There are over a dozen fun quinceanera traditions that are worth discussing.
The religious ceremony
The Quinceanera celebration typically begins as a mass at the Catholic Church. It is celebrated here inside the church as a mass centered on giving thanks and celebrating life. The birthday girl enters the church in a procession similar to that of a wedding. She walks in with a court of young men and women. There are usually fourteen ladies and their fourteen escorts plus the birthday girl’s parents and godparents. The girl is allowed to choose readings that she would like to read. Sometimes, she may choose to appoint a family member or members to read for her.
After the readings at mass, there is a gospel and homily performance. Next, the girl proceeds to renew the vows she made at baptism. The final step of the service is to commit herself to the Virgin Mary and most importantly, God. This is when the girl’s parents and godparents can present her with lavish gifts of all sorts.
Finally, the young lady can now make a devotion to the Virgin Mary. She does so by presenting a flower or a bouquet at the church statue where she attended her mass. The priest then has the duty of blessing the quinceanera, which is just the beginning of the real celebrations.
If however, the quinceanera is not Catholic, there are alternative churches where they can have ceremonies. They could also have the ceremony completely separated from the church service. In such cases, the families write their own ceremonies. They can even choose a family member to preside over the ceremony and even officiate all the blessings.
The quinceanera has a court of young people, as mentioned earlier, consisting of fourteen damas (girls) and fourteen chambelanes (boys). They will accompany her during the ceremony. Each of these pairs represent the fourteen years that she has lived as a child. The fourteen pairs also serve to represent the years that she is now ready to leave behind.
Some girls will ask their family and friends to be the ones making up her court. Just like in weddings where all maids wear matching gowns, all the girls are expected to wear the same gowns. The men wear matching tuxedos or matching suits. Etiquette demands that it is the birthday girl’s duty to inform each member of her court of the clothing requirements.
The dance with dad
The dance with dad 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 girl’s father and often has great significance to the pair or her life. According to tradition, this is a girl’s first public dance. After the song, the father hands the girl over to her escort to begin the next song.
At the same time, the maidens and their escorts enter the fray to join the dance. This dance also acts as an emphasis on the role of the father as the first man in the quinceanera’s life. Here are some of the most popular quinceanera father and daughter dance songs.
Another fun and interesting quinceanera tradition is the Mariachi band. They will serenade the girl the night before her party. The Mariachi band will usually spontaneously appear right in front of her house. Band music marks such a sweet welcome into the world of adulthood. Adulthood, after all, can be spontaneous too. Womanhood is full of responsibility and requires a budding quinceanera to act with maturity.
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. However, the many months of practice are well worth it by performance time. It is every quinceanera’s dream to make her 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. Check out some of the trending and classic waltz songs being played at quinceanera celebrations right now.
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. The tradition started with the Duchess of Alba in Spain many years ago. These dresses are basically made to 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. Some girls may opt for less traditional colors, depending on the family’s level of strictness and adherence to tradition. These colors usually stay within the pastel family to represent life. It is tricky to use any other color apart from white in some parts. This is because the color white is often valued as a color that symbolizes purity and virginity. In such places, the family of the girl face criticism should they choose any other color.
Modesty is also required when it comes to the dressing at quinceanera ceremonies. To alleviate this tradition, some of the girls wear shawls and jackets over their dresses. Later on, after the service has ended and the true party begins, they remove them to show off their dress. Finally, some girls may prefer really modestly designed dresses only.
This quinceanera tradition is usually more distinct based on a range of factors. From social class, financial resources, regional culture, and taste, the food at these parties varies. With that in mind, any quinceanera celebration is not complete without a feast. Usually, it is the girl’s family who is responsible for preparing the feast. This responsibility may also fall onto the neighbors or close friends instead.
In this day and age, and with increasing wealth, people are able to hire the services of experts. Caterers are increasingly taking on the role of food providers during such events. Mexicans usually have a variety of foods including but not limited to chicken mole, tamales, and enchiladas. More staple foods from the area also make appearances too, like beans and rice. Further south, in Chile, the party will feature more tortillas, a baked quiche of Spanish and native origin.
At quinceaneras across the Americas, you are bound to find a variety of tacos. Another common dish is picadillo, combining beef, onions, peppers and tomatoes into a delicious mixture. Picadillo can be served as a side dish or as the filling for tamales, tacos, and other wraps. Read more about culinary quinceanera traditions here.
The cake and treats
Just like in a wedding, the cake at a quinceanera party is the centerpiece of the party. Much pomp and circumstance surrounds the quinceanera traditions when it comes to the cake display, presentation, and serving. Some prefer the almond meringue cake while others like the spongy one known as tres leches. Tres leches, as the Spanish name implies, is made up of three types of milk. This can also be provided by caterers in keeping with modern day requirements and desires.
More traditionally, the cake is often made within the confines of the home if the family is able. Customary treats at quinceanera parties include cookies known as bizcochitos. Candied meringues are also increasingly popular. Dessert is usually served after a number of games and lots of dancing has taken place, so everyone’s appetite is worked up. Check out some more popular dessert options at quinceaneras here.
Changing of shoes
This is one of the more popular quinceanera traditions at the post-service party. Just like the first father and daughter dance, parents take the lead with the shoe changing tradition. During the church service, and at the beginning of the party, the birthday girl will wear flats. At a designated time during the party, one of the quinceanera’s parents will take off their girl’s shoes.
They will replace them with a pair of heels, usually her first pair of heeled shoes. The high heels are a symbol of growth and responsibility on the girl’s part. High heels also symbolize the girl stepping up in society to become an adult woman, bride, and mother.
Toast to the daughter
The toast 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. The toast serves as a moment of pride for both the girl and her parents. It is also important for the party’s guest to get 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. As such, there is a longstanding tradition for the parents’ toasts to go quite long. Lastly, in most Latin American countries today, the drinking age is well over 15. Therefore, the parents and adult guests will be drinking alcohol. But these days, the chances are that the birthday girl and her friends are not.
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 rich families that throw these parties sometimes have to rely on others to help them shoulder the costs. The girl’s parents usually cover a bigger part of the bill. Traditionally, members of the family and the neighbors can help to cover the remaining expenses.
Quinceanera traditions govern that there is a collective responsibility. The party involves doing whatever it takes to make the day as special as possible for the birthday girl. Those people who agree to pay for certain aspects of these celebrations are usually called madrinas and padrinos. Madrinas and padrinos literally means godmothers and godfathers. Traditionally, the way to handle the sponsors is to ask each one of them to foot a certain bill element during the festivities. For example, some will cover the cost of the cake while the others pay for the band or DJ.
Candle lighting is a quinceanera tradition that involves choosing fifteen people to carry candles. This part of the ceremony is especially emotional. It is the moment when the quinceanera honors the people she considers most vital in her life. She often selects fifteen people, including her parents, siblings, neighbors and even friends, dedicating a candle to each of them. Some girls choose to make the fourteen people her damas, with the fifteenth being her mother.
The DJ or master of ceremony usually calls up each of the fifteen members one by one. Oftentimes they play a special song for them while she presents each of them with a candle. In the process of the candle presentation, she will give a speech. Her speech reflects how each of those individuals helped her to achieve maturity and why they are special to her. In some quinceanera parties however, it can be a bit different. Sometimes the fifteen people the quinceanera chooses are the ones who will talk about her instead.
Marking of the firsts
So far, we have seen the quinceanera as a platform for which girls emerge as adults. It is during the celebration that she has her first public dance. Further yet, quinceanera traditions hold that 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, this celebration was meant to introduce the girl to the public as eligible for marriage.
Nowadays, fifteen is rightfully considered far too young to marry. Instead, after the quinceanera, they are generally allowed to interact more with the opposite sex through dating. This was also the first time a girl was allowed to wear make-up such as lipstick traditionally. All of these allowances represent bids to mark her entry into adulthood. Today, however, you find that by age fifteen most girls already use makeup by the time of their party.
The crowning of the quinceanera
Traditionally, the parents of the quinceanera buy her a tiara and scepter as gifts for her special day. These items symbolize the girl’s coming of age, maturity and responsibility. The girl’s mother usually presents the crown passing on the torch from one generation of womanhood to another. The tiara or crown replaces a more casual headpiece that the girl wears at the outset of the party. It is at this time that the quinceanera receives her scepter. This is always a moment of pride for both the parents and the girl. The end of the quinceanera brings confirmation and hope to parents that their daughter.
Another major aspect of quinceanera traditions is, of course, gift giving to the birthday girl. Quinceanera gifts often symbolize adulthood and maturity. So, quinceanera gifts are usually more in line with gifts given to grownups than kids. This is where the gift of ‘the last doll’ comes in. The last doll custom probably originated from Mexico in the 19th century. Others think it came from Puerto Rico in the same era. Essentially, the birthday girl usually receives a porcelain doll dressed like the quinceanera. Some families choose to have ribbons with the girl’s name and the date pinned onto the doll. They will pass the ribbons out to guests as they leave the party as a keepsake. The girl gets to keep the doll. She keeps it as memory to mark the moment that she crossed the threshold from girlhood to womanhood.
Other gifts during the quinceanera may include a bible, medal or a cross, the rosary. People usually give the religious gifts at the church or directly after the service. It is quite common for there to be two rounds of gift giving, both the religious and the more informal.
The birthday girl’s grandparents will often give her fifteen roses during the mass. Rose petals represent sweetness while the stems of the roses represent her strength. Quinceanera parents can also choose to give the birthday girl a tiara and a scepter too. Some cultures use a birthstone and bracelet as the traditional way of representing coming of age and femininity.
Celebrating life and tradition
While a quinceanera celebration can come across as overly extravagant and very expensive, it is chock full of tradition. These quinceanera traditions are an important part of individuality just as they are celebrations of Latin American and Mestizo culture. Traditionally, Latin American societies tend to place more responsibilities on the girl once the ceremony is over. She is now more deeply immersed in family household duties.
The girl, now a woman, is expected to cater to family needs when she can. She can volunteer in more adult ways demanding more responsibility. And, fairly soon, she will be eligible for marriage in the community’s eyes. After this, tradition holds that the young adult will live a dedicated life full of morality and devotion.
Kids don’t have to face the same high and strict expectations. But for adults, such actions lead to a more wholesome life. The quinceanera is a form of giving thanks to God for enriching the lives of young people. Further, the mass and celebration also thanks God for guiding them into and through adulthood, along with life’s challenges.
The fact that the first stop of the quinceanera is a church says a lot about this ceremony. Ultimately, organized religion and spirituality form the roots of quinceaneras. This continues to be important in sustaining values. Vows, at least as intended, maintain uprightness and purity into adult life. In many quinceanera held by religious families, the new fifteen year old will make vows to God before the congregation. This is an opportunity for the girl to showcase her personal values as well as her own goals for the path ahead.
Quinceaneras are binding events for family, friends and neighbors, coming together to celebrate their girl. Many of these same people also come together well beforehand to jointly plan the celebration. Quinceanera traditions promote cohesion and unity through the planning process. Just as in other collectivist societies, everyone involved in the quinceanera is responsible for a small contribution. This communal approach is often the only way that such big and successful parties can be put together.
Because of the cost and resources involved, family income is a huge determinant in what the party will look like. Richer families certainly tend to hold bigger and better parties than those less privileged families due to money and resources. That is why some cities, like the Mexican capital, took interventionist measures to spread the joy of quinceaneras to everyone. For the most part, NGOs and sponsors representing the economic elite have made these large contributions.
The quinceanera traditions that we’ve showcased here are important parts of culture, but they’re also really fun. These parties are a lifetime highlight for Latin American women and their close friends and families. In conclusion, they are also a great opportunity to share incredible local foods and show off some great dance skills.
What are your favorite quinceanera traditions or stories from your experiences at these Latin parties? Do you have a favorite quinceanera dish recipe you’d like to share? Looking for gift ideas to bring to a quinceanera? Please leave your thoughts on our comments section.