Rites of Passage

Rites of passage are found in all societies in all periods, but they differ not only from culture to culture but over time within a particular culture. They change as societies change and, while they are often perceived as traditional, they are by no means timeless. Rites of passage are at least as common in modern as in premodern societies. In the case of Western cultures, they have increased over time. Rites of passage are highly scripted dramatic performances initiated on the occasion of a change in the life of an individual that affects relationships within a group or between groups. These are as much directed to changing perceptions as changing behavior. The rite itself has a tripartite structure, which begins with the separation of the main actor from his or her former status. This is usually accomplished by a change of clothing, locale, or behavior. Then follows a liminal moment when the individual is thought to be in a transitional state. The rite is completed when the central actor is reintegrated into society in his or her new role or identity. The most obvious contemporary example of a rite of passage is the big white wedding in which the female is separated from unmarried women as a group by her dress and deportment, then is cloistered as "bride" for a period of time before being reintegrated into society as a married woman. The white wedding is a highly dramatic performance which alters the relationship not only of the bride to the groom, but of the couple to their peers, family, and community.

While rites of passage may appear to be the product of tradition and seem to represent consensus about the way things ought to be done in a particular society, they are in fact ways of coping with the ambiguities, uncertainties, and conflicts inherent in any social order. When life flows smoothly and there are no contradictions, there is no need for these cultural interventions. But in all societies there are certain moments in the life of the individual and the group which seem to require something more, something that will mediate the apparent contradictions and restore a sense of order. Rituals allow this to happen smoothly and unthinkingly. "Ritual inevitably carries a basic message of order, continuity, and predictability. New events are connected to preceding ones, incorporated into a stream of precedents so that they are recognized as growing out of tradition and experience. By stating enduring and underlying patterns, ritual connects past, present, and future, abrogating history and time," writes Barbara Myerhoff (p. 306). Rites of passage do not so much change things as give meaning to changes that are occurring.

In the Western world rites of passage have changed dramatically since the onset of modernity in the eighteenth century. Premodern rites were collective and communal performances, coping with ambiguities and tensions in the preindustrial social order. At that time lives were perceived spatially rather than temporally. Society understood itself as a static hierarchy–as a great chain of being–in which people moved up and down rather than forward and backward through time. In preindustrial society senior did not necessarily mean older. In that world very young men and women could attain very high rank.

Premodern Western rites of passage were not keyed to age as such. Instead, they marked changes in status within a larger community. The first and almost universal rite of passage was BAPTISM, symbolic of membership in the Christian community. It usually happened within a few days of birth, but in some denominations was postponed until a much later point in life. BIRTHDAYS as such were rarely celebrated before the nineteenth century. For some young people the ceremonies associated with entry into a religious calling constituted their ultimate rite of passage. The rites of apprentices, journeymen, and masters were equally dramatic performances. Village youth groups also had their rites of passage, but the most elaborate ceremony was the wedding, which in both town and country marked the biggest single change of status. Only those who could sustain a household were allowed to marry in this manner. The very public performance of wedding, which involved the entire community and not just the families involved, acknowledged the change in public status and power involved. It was less about personal than collective transformation.

By contrast, modern rites of passage are more personal and familial. They are less concerned with adjustments in the order of society than with the changing age identities of individuals. Rites of passage have become much more agespecific as numerical age itself becomes more important in assigning status. But because age is as much a cultural construct as a natural fact, some events, like MENARCHE and PUBERTY, which one might expect to draw considerable ritual attention, do not necessarily do so. On the other hand, birth dates, which do not indicate any great change, are now the occasion of sometimes elaborate ceremonies. In this secular era, it is birth, not baptism, which is life's first rite of passage.

Transitions from infancy to BOYHOOD were marked by BREECHING in the early modern period, and in the nineteenth century such ceremonies as FIRST COMMUNION, CONFIRMATION, and BAR MITZVAH came to be the standard passages to adolescence. In the twentieth century the transition from adolescence to young adulthood was marked for men by elaborate graduation and enlistment ceremonies, while elite women had their debutante balls and various comingout parties. Today, these ceremonies are overshadowed by such landmarks as getting a driver's license and having one's first legal drink, but ADOLESCENCE AND YOUTH remain a time of intense ritualization; and so too does young adulthood, that long drawn-out affair marked variously by graduation from university, the first "real" job, leaving home, getting married, getting a mortgage, and having children. Never has the life course been so full of ritualized events that have become modern rites of passage, almost all of which are celebrated within the confines of family and friends.

The development of modern rites of passage in the modern world has followed a certain pattern. Elaborate ceremonies appeared first among the upper classes and were later appropriated by lower classes and various ethnic groups. It is worth noting that they multiplied first among males and spread later to women. In the Jewish religion the modern bar mitzvah for boys developed long before it was felt necessary to have a similar ceremony (bat mitzvah) for girls. The reasons for this class and gender pattern have to do with the greater degree of uncertainty and ambiguity experienced initially by males in modern capitalist society. Elite men were the first to be expected to forge their own way as individuals, while elite women's lives as daughters and wives were more predictable and continuous, at least until marriage, when their one great rite of passage, the white wedding, dealt with the uncertainties generated by that event.

Today's rites of passage are less exclusive, though class, ethnic, and gender variation is very evident. Every group now has its own version of the standard rites of passage. African-American families make much of their young people's graduations. Latino female coming-of-age parties rival the old debutante balls in expense and significance. Bat mitzvahs have attained a parity with bar mitzvahs, and the white wedding is now universal in Western societies, exported worldwide as the modern way to be married in Japan, Mexico, and many parts of Africa. Today gay and lesbian people also have their own rites of passage, including commitment ceremonies. But, while there are more and more varied rites of passage today than ever before, they are less inclusive of the community and more family oriented.

Western society has become extraordinarily child-centered, and virtually every stage of childhood is given ritual treatment. The reason for this lies in the increasingly uncertain and conflicted nature of growing up in modern society. In this era of the "hurried child," when there is such pressure on children to meet certain norms, rites of passage are one of the ways adults try to reassure themselves that there are still "enduring and underlying patterns" and that childhood itself has not yet been lost. Rites assure us that our children have a proper childhood and that we are good parents and grandparents after all. In today's highly ritualized family life, to miss a birthday or graduation is regarded as neglect or worse. One could even go so far as to say that the modern family is a group of people sharing a set of rituals. Everywhere we turn, especially where there is tension and unpredictability, there are rites of passage. This is not to say that ritual always works as intended. It can also be its own source of tension and controversy. This is one reason why rites of passage are always mutating. They are one of the most prominent but also one of the most protean features of modern life, deserving much more attention by historians and other cultural observers.

See also: Life Course and Transitions to Adulthood.


Chudacoff, Howard. 1981. How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in American Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Davis-Floyd, Robbie E. 1992. Birth as an American Rite of Passage. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Gillis, John. 1996. A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values. New York: Basic Books.

Lowe, Donald. 1982. History of Bourgeois Perception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Myerhoff, Barbara. 1986. "Rites and Signs of Ripening: The Inter-twining of Ritual, Time, and Growing Older." In Age and AnthropologicalTheory, ed. David Kertzer and Jennie Keith. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Pleck, Elizabeth. 2000. Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sheehy, Gail. 1995. New Passages: Your Life Across Time. New York: Random House.