Rite of Passage
Rite of Passage
A ceremony or event marking the passage from one social status or developmental state to another.
The Belgian anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, who first coined the term early in the 20th century, noted a
One of the most important transitions in the life cycle is the passage from childhood to adulthood. Ceremonies marking this event were common in pre-industrial societies and are still practiced in a number of non-Western cultures, whose coming-of-age or initiation rituals generally follow the pattern outlined by van Gennep. For males, these rituals often consist of some kind of test and include circumcision. Boys belonging to the Masai tribes of East Africa become warriors between the ages of 12 and 16 after a ritual in which a group of initiates is isolated, their heads shaved, and then circumcised. The Kikuyu of Kenya were traditionally circumcised and adopted by ritual parents at around the age of 15. Isolated in groups for a period of eight days, they sang, danced, and ate special ceremonial foods.
Ritual coming-of-age ceremonies for girls were traditionally associated with the onset of menstruation. However, in contrast to males, young women were generally isolated individually (usually for about one week), after which they often participated in activities literally or symbolically related to their future status as homemakers. (Carib girls in Surinam were made to handle a tuft of burning cotton as a reminder that they would always need to keep their hands busy.) Finally, they would be adorned with jewelry and special clothing and have festivities held in their honor. One female rite of passage still practiced in parts of Africa has drawn protests throughout the international community: among the Masai and other groups, female circumcision (genital mutilation) is considered the main ritual marking a young woman's transition to adulthood, a sign that she is ready to marry and procreate. While some tribal groups cling to certain practices such as this one, others have modified their rituals to accord with contemporary life. For example, many African males undergo ritual circumcision in a clinic under local anesthesia and, contrary to traditional practice, do not immediately assume full adult responsibilities, remaining instead in their parents' home and finishing school.
In the United States, as in many other Western cultures, there is no clear-cut point at which a young person becomes an adult and, therefore, no single definitive rite of passage marking the transition to adulthood. Another reason cited for the absence of such a ritual is that such rites are typically religious in nature, and the United States has no official religion. In fact, the closest approximations to traditional rites of passage in the United States are the Judeo-Christian religious ceremonies of confirmation and bar/bat mitzvah.
Protestants consider the confirmation a reaffirmation of the religious promises made for the infant at baptism. The bar mitzvah marks the point at which a Jewish boy, at the age of 13, enters into full adult participation in the religious life of his community. He is deemed qualified to be counted as part of a minyan (the quorum of 10 men needed for public prayer) and can begin wearing religious symbols called tefillin (phylacteries) and fully observing the ritual fast days of the Jewish calendar.
The bat mitzvah, a 20th-century innovation, is a similar ceremony for Jewish girls when they turn 12. Bar and bat mitzvah are also terms referring to the altered status that the young person automatically attains at the age of 12 or 13, with or without the ceremony (although the ceremony is always an integral part of the occasion for observant Jews, especially the bar mitzvah). A bar or bat mitzvah is not only something one has, but it is also something one becomes. Traditionally, the lives of boys in the strictly Orthodox Jewish communities of Eastern Europe underwent a significant change once they reached the age of 13. They were sent out of town to special schools (yeshivas) for advanced religious study and returned home only for major holidays. Except for these visits, many young men never lived with their families again. Although almost all Jews, including modern Orthodox Jews, have abandoned this practice, Hasidim and other strictly Orthodox groups still maintain it in the various countries where they reside, including the United States.
Although there is no universal rite of passage for American teenagers, a number of different milestones do carry symbolic connotations of adulthood. These include getting a driver's license and getting one's first job. Two special rituals for young women that were once common but have faded in popularity are the "sweet sixteen" party and the debutante ball. Both of these events (especially the latter) served a function similar to that of more traditional female initiation rituals: announcing the young woman's availability for dating and marriage. Two symbolic events accompany the end of secondary schooling: the prom and high school graduation. The high school graduation, which may be the closest thing Americans have to a definitive coming-of-age ritual, involves a standardized formal ceremony, including speeches, music, and a procession. In addition, the initiates are spatially separated from the rest of the community (i.e., their parents), which they rejoin after the ceremony. Other experiences commonly associated with coming-of-age include joining the military, getting married, and getting one's first full-time job.
Aside from the lack of a clearly defined point of entry into adulthood, another difference between modern
Kaplan, Louise J. Adolescence: The Farewell to Childhood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.
Liptak, Karen. Coming-of-Age: Traditions and Rituals Around the World. Millbrook Press, 1994.
Schlegel, Alice. Adolescence: An Anthropological Inquiry. New York: Free Press, 1991.
van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.