Every culture or religion on earth has a coming of age ritual. Each is carried out in its own way but represents the same thing: a time where a child is recognized as an adult and enters a new community filled with new responsibilities and new privileges. Many, especially western, culture’s coming of age rituals involve pledging one’s allegiance to a church. In America, the most common coming of age rituals are confirmation and bar mitzvah. Nowadays the transition into adulthood often does not come with a formal, public celebration.
I was lucky enough to experience my own Jugendweihe in 9th grade, when I lived in Berlin. I had no idea what it was, except that almost my entire class was doing it and that I got presents at the end. Jugendweihe occurs a lot like a mix of confirmation and graduation. Many require you to take certain classes, on how to be a productive member of society, before you go through the ceremony. You invite your whole family to come join you. Everyone dresses up in nice clothes and buys overpriced tickets to the event. All the adolescents have to sit in the front row so they are sure to hear the many speeches given. There are many small, kitschy performances such as playing “The Lion King” clips or listening to a modern troubadour. After all is said, the adolescents have to walk the stage where they normally receive a Jugendweihe book (“Welt, Erde, Mensch”), a flower and a certificate. Now it is time to go eat and drink with the family. Normally the restaurants next to the venue are completely booked. This is where the family give all of their own speeches, toasts and presents to the newly appointed adult.
Jugendweihe is a way to enter the world of adults with a nice, big celebration without any church affiliation. It was made popular through the communist party as a secular alternative to church confirmation. It was not, however, invented by the communist party. Jugendweihe has its roots in the labor movement of the 19th century. There is still great controversy between the church and Jugendweihe in Germany. Each year there are twice as many adolescents that go through Jugendweihe than there are that go through confirmation. The church, rightly so, feels that it cuts into the amount of new “believers” that pass through its pearly gates each year and therefore try to label Jugendweihe as an old communist past time that should be eradicated. This is what has happened in West Germany as Jugendweihen are done almost exclusively in East Germany. It is not so much that there is still a split between east and west because of this, but rather that no one has heard of Jugendweihe in West Germany.
Each year, many adolescents are forced to take part in religious ceremonies that they themselves do not believe in. The German “Jugendweihe” presents a great secular alternative to this, by allowing young people and their families to experience the great ceremony of becoming an adult without having to join a religion.