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#1
Old 12-09-2002, 05:50 AM
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How did the Sweet Sixteen tradition get started?

And how long has it been an American custom? Mexican families have quinceaneras for their daughters: a party that's like a mix of confirmation, debut and wedding, on their fifteenth birthday. I went to one once. Well, I didn't attend the Mass, but I was at the reception, where there was a kind of ceremony. Some people were explaining the stuff I didn't get. It's basically a hundred-years-old tradition where a girl renews her faith in the Church, and joins the community as a woman. But like most such rituals, in the late twentieth century there started being more emphasis on the reception than on the Mass. Anyway, no one knew why fifteen was the age.

What I can trace back is the British and wealthy-American tradition of debuts: At age eighteen, girls are given debut parties, where they are presented (in a white gown? I know quinceaneras necessitates a white gown) to "society". I believe in Britain, one also has to have been Presented At Court. You file past the current monarch and their spouse, if any, as part of a group of debs, curtsey (to each one separately, if there are two), and then, I guess, faint. I would love to do that.

Now, I understand the age requirement in this case: they chose eighteen because that's old enough to marry. The "deb season" follows, during which single guys in the 18-23 range are encouraged to take these girls out, wine them and dine them and from this, choose a wife. (I'll have to find another way to curtsey; I'm already married and I'm too old.)

I also think the Sweet Sixteen tradition is well-chosen. Sophomore year in high school is the right time for a blowout party: freshmen are changing alliances too often, juniors are swamped with work, and seniors don't want the kind of party mom and dad organize. It's often the last time parents will give a big-ticket gift, since after sixteen, one can get a job more easily and should be buying their own stuff. Since it coincides with the driving age, a car is an ideal big-ticket gift. And it comes at an age where a girl might still be insecure, so the chance to be Princess-For-A-Day is a godsend.

But who chose sixteen?

(And why "sweet"?)
#2
Old 12-09-2002, 07:14 AM
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To what extent does there actually exist any such tradition? I've lived in a number of different social groups over the years, and I've *never* personally known anyone actually holding or being at such an event. I wonder if this isn't one of those traditions that's more discussed than actually experienced.

The first cite in the OED for "sweet sixteen" is 1826. This is a sentence in which a girl is said to be "sweet sixteen" though, not a reference to a ceremony. In any case, the reason for the choice of "sweet" to precede "sixteen" is just for alliteration.
#3
Old 12-09-2002, 07:15 AM
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I believe pretty much every western country has a similar tradition where a girl was now considered an adult. Why 16? Well, because 45 is a bit too late. It has to be some age. In Mexico it is 15, in the US, 16, in other places 18 and in many places the age is not essential and it was just a transition to adulthood which was done at any convenient or chosen time.
#4
Old 12-09-2002, 08:07 AM
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Wendell: Well, it's not a ceremony like quinceaneras; it's just the expectation that a girl will be, as I said, Princess-For-A-Day on that birthday, and it's the one birthday where her parents don't go as all-out as they can, they are mean and should eat worms. It's also associated with a myth that true love will find you on that day , which was prevalent even before Sixteen Candles: that movie was a product of the myth, not the source of it.

I guess I should have been more clear with my question. I should have expanded on what I said about quinceaneras becoming more for show in recent years.

A lot of American traditions are a hundred years old or less. Mother's Day, for instance: that was invented in the early 20th century. "Sweet Sixteen" might have started out only as a phrase, as Wendell suggests, but at some time during the twentieth century, it might have become an industry and occasion for spectacle. Not as much as weddings and Valentine's Day, but retailers do push SS-related tchotkes (sp?). Go to a Hallmark store and you'll see little ceramic nymphets holding "16". Go to a jewelry store and you'll see necklaces and bracelet charms with the same digits. And culturally, there can be pressure, depending on what kind of community you live in: will she get a car? A big party? One of those trinkets, 24karats? And how does that stack up against what her friends got, and what Daddy's cow-orker gave his daughter?
#5
Old 12-09-2002, 09:12 AM
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Quote:
Originally posted by Rilchiam
I believe in Britain, one also has to have been Presented At Court. You file past the current monarch and their spouse, if any, as part of a group of debs, curtsey (to each one separately, if there are two), and then, I guess, faint. I would love to do that.
FWIW, I don't believe there's any formal presentation at the Court of St. James any more. I did try to find a cite to back that up, but you wouldn't believe what googling for "debutante" gets you. I'll come back if anything shows up from a more specific search.
#6
Old 12-09-2002, 09:20 AM
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Quote:
Originally posted by everton
FWIW, I don't believe there's any formal presentation at the Court of St. James any more. I did try to find a cite to back that up, but you wouldn't believe what googling for "debutante" gets you.
Such as...? :::groucho smiley:::

Quote:
it's the one birthday where her parents don't go as all-out as they can, they are mean and should eat worms.
If they don't go all out. If they don't.
#7
Old 12-09-2002, 09:43 AM
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Thanks, though!
#8
Old 12-09-2002, 09:51 AM
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Is this a regional thing? Like Wendell Wagner, I've never heard of anyone holding a Sweet Sixteen party in real life, nor have I ever seen the jewelry you describe ('course, I don't spend much time in the Hallmark shop either). I'm from Virginia, for what it's worth.
#9
Old 12-09-2002, 09:57 AM
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My momma, a good Southerner, said that the "Sweet Sixteen" birthday was when a Southern girl, the daughter of a plantation owner or someone wealthy, was presented to eligible young bachelors from around the state.
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#10
Old 12-09-2002, 10:38 AM
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Rilchiam, I wasn't just claiming that I've never known anyone doing it as a ceremony. I was saying that I've never personally known anyone even doing it as an informal tradition. I've never known any parents who treated a sixteenth birthday as being anything bigger than any other birthday. I think this must only be a tradition in a relatively small segment of American society. I think it's possible to get fooled by the advertising in Hallmark and other stores. Remember, it's in their interest to make people think that this is a bigger tradition than it actually is. Furthermore, I don't think I've ever even seen advertising in stores for Sweet Sixteen parties.
#11
Old 12-09-2002, 12:11 PM
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Well, you have to keep in mind that marriage laws and traditions vary over time and geography. In a society where a girl is grown up enough to have suitors at the age of 14 or 15, and an old maid at 20, 16 is considered prime marriage age. At one point, America was just such a society, and the average age of puberty was a little higher than it is now. Not that anyone talked about puberty, of course, but 15 or 16 was a good age to be pretty sure a young woman had become a woman, so to speak.

Now, that she's old enough to be married off, you want to move that merchandise ASAP, so you want to introduce her to as many eligibles as possible, give her a bunch of stuff for her dowry to sweeten the deal, etc., and a big blow-out party for her birthday is the most efficient way to do this without being blatantly obvious about it.

Keep in mind that laws vary about the age you can legally drive or get married, so some of the cultural milestones mentioned in the OP may or may not apply to being Sweet Sixteen.

I've also seen the little figurines of the chick holding the numbers for other ages, too. They seem to be aimed at culturally significant birthdays, though as 13, 15, 16, and 18 are the most common.
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