The global perspective of turning 21: Coming of Age Rituals

More often than not, the day starts with excitement and smiles, but ends in blurred memories and one gigantic headache. Why yes, I am describing the 21st birthday of the average, American young adult. For young men and women in the United States, celebrating a 21st birthday is about being free from the law that has loomed over them for 21 years- or at least from the time that alcohol became somewhat appealing. Although it is recognized that some choose to celebrate with poise and class, some also choose to fully immerse themselves in the world of alcoholic beverages.

But, little do most people know, many other countries

do not ring in the 21st year of life in this manner.

For many countries around the world, one’s 21st birthday is a prestigious milestone, declaring one a new member of adult society. It is often a day rooted in tradition and a day full of celebration surrounding the coming of age. This article serves to give you a glimpse into how 21st birthdays are welcomed and celebrated across the globe.



21st birthdays in Holland are particularly special. As one of the “crown year” birthdays, young adults in Holland get treated like royalty at the start of year 21. Young adults receive a large gift – larger than any other year – and the family of the birthday man or woman will often decorate a chair of them at the dining table. These chairs are typically be draped in paper streamers and adorned with paper flowers. Pancakes dusted with powdered sugar and sprinkled with taarties are often a sweet treat served on this special day, accompanied with a refreshing drink of lemonade or hot chocolate.


A Philippine debut is nothing shy of lavish. On the days that women turn 18 and when men turn 21, extravagant parties are hosted to celebrate the coming of age. For women, the celebrations are more grandiose. The Philippine debut is believed to have originated from the idea of the Spanish quinceanera. Because 18 is the age of which filipino women celebrate coming of age – said to be because women mature sooner – traditions such as 18 members of the entourage and 18 roses and candles, stand to represent this milestone. Eighteen shots are then taken as a toast to each commemorative speech given to the debutante. For men on their 21st birthdays, the parties are a little less lavish. They reflect more of what one may think of as a typical birthday party – no 21 roses or candles.     

South Africa

Interestingly enough, 21st birthdays in South Africa do not actually celebrate one’s 21st year of life. In South Africa, birthdays traditionally celebrate the day that one was initiated into an African community. Much like Australia, there is a tradition of giving a key to the birthday man or woman. It stands to symbolize the preparedness of the individual to unlock their future. These keys are made of gold, silver, or even sometimes aluminum foil. Traditions vary from tribe to tribe, however, some tribes serve crocodile sirloin or fried caterpillars as celebratory delicacies.


With the sunshine and warm weather that prevails year round, Australians typically celebrate birthdays with a good ole barbeque. Australian 21st birthdays are celebrated with good food! For dessert, Fairy Cake is often served. A buttered cake topped with sprinkles, also known as “hundreds and thousands,” it is a dessert seems like it could make any angel sing and fairy dance. It is customary for family members to give a speech after cutting the cake. Traditionally on 21st birthdays in Australia, the young adult who is coming of age is given a key to the family residence. This symbolizes the freedom to come and go as pleased, but always having a place to come back to.


21st birthdays- and really any birthday for that matter- celebrated in Brazil are typically infused with color. Vegetable or fruit shaped candies are often eaten on one’s birthday as a sweet treat. Homes are decorated with colorful paper flowers and cheery banners. When it comes to the birthday cake, there is a standing Brazilian tradition that the birthday boy or girl, man or woman, gives the first piece of cake to a special person of their choice. After that is done, the rest of the guests may be served the cake.

United Kingdom

The celebration of a 21st birthday in the UK is deeply rooted in history and is said to be related to the rituals of knighthood. Men would be promoted to a knight once they reached the age of 21. 21st birthdays in the UK have since become a day of celebration and a day of thanks. It is not uncommon for parents to speak about the growth they have seen in their child over their 21 years, or for spouses to share some words about their love. Those who are celebrating their 21st birthday will often share words of gratitude to all that helped them celebrate their special day.  

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1 comment

  1. I really enjoyed this article! For most Americans, the idea of a sober or less-than-boozy 21st birthday is disappointing, but you proved that wrong! These cultures all have beautiful traditions and I feel joyous to see that there are so many other ways to celebrate around the world that involve remembering it the next day. Wonderful article!

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