THE BLOG
01/27/2015 05:59 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2015

When a Century Turns 15, It's Sacred Party Time

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Hispanic cultures know that turning 15 is a big deal. A religious ceremony and a dance are a traditional way of acknowledging maturity; a girl becoming a woman.

Our current century has recently celebrated her 15th birthday. In fact, as the year turned 2015, our millennium has turned sweet 15. You may have thought the usual New Year's Eve hoop-la was enough. Nowhere near. It's time for a sacred moment. A year-long moment.

This new century -- this new thousand years -- both need and deserve a recognition of growing up. It might do us all good: One purpose of such a rite is to give notice to the one being celebrated that it's time to grow up.

The celebration of a girl's 15th, the quinceañera, traditionally begins in many countries in church. In my view, this religious recognition of sexual maturity is an important stamp of approval.

Loved ones give thanks for the girl's first 15 years, the childhood that is ending on this day. The girl will often wear a dress that could work for wedding or prom. Raleigh immigration lawyer, Jenny Doyle Velasco, feels the mass is the most important part. Her daughter's was a traditional Catholic Sunday mass with our entire community present. The kids in her life sat in the front -- girls in white, boys in jackets. The important women in her life -- godmother, sister and aunt all had a role in the ceremony. She read her commitment to her faith and good works before the entire congregation, then lit a candle.

It is a touching ceremony. Of course, the celebrant (Father John) has known her since she was a baby. It is very meaningful.

The traditions vary widely from nation to nation and family to family. But the idea of reaching a milestone of maturity -- a raising of the standards of behavior -- is the same. And as with any heartfelt ritual, the impact can be tremendous. It was at the party that followed when she seemed all at once changed.

At this moment that she danced with Dad ... she was no longer so little. Everyone was emotional and happy.

Not all such rites of passage are so religious. Maria Simpson, half-Colombian, 27, had her quince 12 year ago.

Because we weren't practicing Catholics, we did not partake in the traditional mass. However we did say some prayers, and kept other traditions. My parents bought me a gold and diamond cross...The biggest tradition we kept, besides a white dress, was the 'changing of the shoes.' The first half of the party I wore 'little girl' shoes. They were a really pretty white lacy Keds-type shoe. At the half way point we cleared the dance floor and buffet area. This was the most ceremonious part; I sat in a chair in the middle of the room and my dad changed my shoes from the 'little girl' ones into heels. Of course this is to symbolize the transition into womanhood from being a child.

And afterwards?

My parents allowed me to go on actual dates, without a chaperone... I felt a lot more grown up. I personally had put a lot of importance on the tradition.

She is hoping her daughter will want to celebrate in the same way.

Ali Lucas, now 15, had been planning her quinceañera since she was five.

The idea of being able to dress up like a princess for a night filled my heart with so much happiness...My mom's side of the family is from Peru, and in South America there isn't as much religious emphasis on the party as there is in Mexico and other Central American countries. I am a Christian, so I did have one of the pastors from my church say a blessing before dinner, but that was the only really religious part of the party.

A quince is a party representing a girl's transition from childhood to maturity... I do feel more grown up now. I feel like I transitioned into a woman, and that now I act more mature than I did before I turned fifteen.

The tradition likely did not start as a Catholic ceremony, but an Aztec acknowledgement of marriageability. It became a Catholic tradition, and now it can be Protestant or largely secular as well.

But the traditional ceremony gifts are full of religious significance. A tiara says that the girl is a 'princess' before God and the world, that she has triumphed over childhood and is able to face adult challenges.

The cross or saint's medal shows her faith in herself, God and her world. The scepter shows her new authority and responsibility for her life.

Gisela Torres recalls that her quinceañera cost almost $8,000.

We planned for months and spent too much money, but I love it. My quinceañera made me feel so grown up. One day I was just a 14-year-old girl planning my birthday party, and the next day I was an adult.

Another sort of story, a sad one, comes from a girl whose celebration was cancelled. She then decided that her 15th birthday would introduce her adulthood anyway.

Today was my last day to be a kid and I enjoyed it. Starting tomorrow I can't smoke, drink, cut; I have to be an adult, even if I'm the only one who truly sees myself that way.

So do we resolve to give up destructive habits and live right in honor of the year 2015? Do we throw an $8,000 party? Does the century deserve a tiara for navigating her first 14 years?

It wouldn't hurt to recognize that in these 15 years, we've come through an attack on our shores and a serious blow to the economy. Maybe a scepter -- lapel-sized, no bigger than a pink ribbon -- would inspire confidence and action in dealing with climate and Congress and whatever else the future holds. A rite of passage, of celebration and fresh dedication could only do us good.