More than just a 15th birthday party, quinceañeras have a spiritual side, too

Published: Friday, Oct. 29 2010 4:58 p.m. MDT

For many Hispanic girls, the quinceañera festival has a spiritual component that transcends the traditional elaborate party to celebrate their 15th birthday. This is a moment to thank God for allowing them to reach adolescence and an opportunity to ask him to bless their future as they make the transition from childhood to young womanhood.

The Mexican quinceañera tradition traces its origin to the Catholic religion. As part of the custom, girls are taken with their parents and godparents to a Thanksgiving Mass in which they express gratitude for the gift of life and ask a blessing for the years to come.

Prior to the Mass, the girls receive lifestyle training in which they learn about their religious faith and how important and valuable they are to God.

"As teenagers, young people are in a stage of change and confusion. They are looking for their own personal identity, but they also need to know they are God's creatures and as his daughters, they should make him proud," said Omar Ontiveros, a Catholic priest.

For the ceremony, the church is decorated with flowers and a red carpet. It is a memorable and spiritually significant event. It is also the moment when the teenager is introduced to God and her community as a young adult.

In the homily, the priest makes direct recommendations to the birthday girl and her parents and godparents, to preserve the girl's "dignity, decency and purity."

Usually during the Mass, the quinceañera — which literally translates as "15-year-old girl" ?— sits in front of the altar in a special chair. Behind her are seated her parents and siblings, as well as her godparents and her "chambelanes" or escorts, who are going to dance the waltz with the birthday girl during the party.

At the end of the Mass, one or two little girls will give some kind of souvenirs to the attendees to help them remember the day.

This is also the moment when the girl gives thanks to the Virgin Mary, her parents and others who have been the sponsors of her faith and beliefs throughout her life.

The Catholic ceremony is an opportunity to celebrate with family and friends, but especially to glorify God for the gift of life and love.

Many Protestant religions have adopted their own variations of the quinceañera festival, however, these celebrations are usually less extravagant than the Catholic version and may or may not be held during a party.

In these ceremonies, it is common for the minister to remind the birthday girl of the duties and responsibilities that life will bring to her. He will also encourage her to live her future based upon God's commandments.

During the celebration, the birthday girl will be reminded that youth can be a time of happiness, but also a time of vulnerability and risk, because the lack of experience may lead her to wrong paths.

Although The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn't have a ceremony for the quinceañeras, many Hispanic Mormons will still often celebrate a girl's 15th birthday as a cultural rite of passage.

Usually, the birthday girl and her parents will mark the occasion by saying a prayer asking for a blessing that she will conduct herself in the best way and remind her that her parents are always concerned about her welfare.

Brenda Aguilar of Salt Lake celebrated her quinceañera tradition with her parents, Jorge and Lucia, and family on Aug. 28, with a visit to the grounds of the Salt Lake Temple followed by a party with family and friends.

Tania Navarro regularly writes for the El Observador de Utah.

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