While many people might be more familiar with Sweet Sixteen bashes, a quinceañera party similarly celebrates a milestone moment in a teenage girl’s life. Josefina Loza, founder of Lozafina Marketing and Public Relations, helps coordinate large celebrations, and she recently planned and organized her own daughter’s quinceañera.

“A quinceañera is a big step in the life of a young woman,” Loza says. “It is a ‘coming of age’ ceremony, a celebration of turning 15 and making the transition from a young girl to becoming a woman.”

To better understand what a quinceañera is, we chatted with Loza about the event’s rich history, the traditions associated with it, and what kinds of gifts are appropriate to give at one.

What is a quinceañera?

A quinceañera is a celebration marking a 15-year-old girl’s passage to womanhood. Quinceañeras tend to be observed in the United States, Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean, but they can appear in other Latino communities around the world. The word combines two Spanish words: quince (“15”) and años (“years”).

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Photo courtesy of Josefina Loza

But the celebration isn’t just about honoring the girl’s birthday. “The quinceañera is also deeply spiritual,” Loza explains. “It’s a time for the young woman to take responsibility for her own faith and actions.”

A quinceañera starts with a Catholic mass, called the “misa de acción de gracias.” “This is a thanksgiving mass reflecting gratitude and religious devotion,” Loza says. The girl’s family, friends, and godparents pray and thank God for her arrival to maturity. The quinceañera (the term also applies to the celebrant herself) holds a bouquet and wears a formal dress, mini wedding dress, or lavish prom dress, depending on her preference.

After the mass, the family hosts an elaborate reception or party lasting many hours, with food, dancing, gift giving, and other activities.

A short history of quinceañera

As with many customs and cultural practices, the quinceañera has changed over the years. According to quinceañera.com, “[t]he Incas, the Mayas, the Toltecs and the Aztecs, all had…ceremonies [that] were meant to shape up these teenage members into their adult roles, to benefit both them and the tribe.” However, boys and girls were separated, to be prepared differently, and the young girls thus would learn more about their traditional roles within the family unit. Often, these roles were wives and mothers. “Once the preparation course was over, an initiation ceremony took place to celebrate the new era of the young girl.”

These celebrations typically presented the young girl as a prospective spouse to an eligible man, not unlike the formal debutante balls celebrated in the American South, where a young girl is “introduced to society.” Flash forward to recent times, and a quinceañera is more like a Sweet Sixteen, marking a girl’s maturity and the beginning of her adulthood.

Other quinceañera traditions and customs

The quinceañera comes with its own special practices. Here, Loza explains some of the most significant.

The court

Typically, the girl is attended by her “court” of damas, or “maids of honor,” and their dates. This tradition references the prior importance of the quinceañera, announcing that the young girl was ready for marriage. Today, however, this practice can be considered as marking her ability to begin formally dating. Like her damas, the girl will have her own date, who is expected to escort her from the mass to the party, where they will then share a dance.

La última muñeca (“The last doll”)

The girl is offered one final doll, signifying her final doll before adulthood. Loza gave her daughter a teddy bear. “Traditionally, the quinceañera would give away her childhood toys to younger girls, and the last doll was the final toy to be given away,” Loza says. This practice can differ depending on the family’s traditions, however.

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Photo courtesy of Josefina Loza
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Photo courtesy of Josefina Loza

The crown

Not all birthday girls wear a crown at their quinceañera. But for many, this item “symbolizes that you are a ‘princess’ before God and the world,” Loza explains. “It is also a reminder of the greater crown that Christ will place on your head one day in heaven.” This practice may also allude to the contemporary prom queen, combining United States practices with those associated with the Latin world.

The first flower bouquet

Like the court, this tradition might stem from the girl being of marriageable age. But for Loza, “the flowers given during the quinceañera symbolize her feminine grace.” While the types of flowers in this bouquet are dependent on the birthday girl’s preferences, red roses are a popular choice.

Heeled shoes

During the party, the birthday girl dons heeled shoes for the first time, indicating she is now ready for adulthood.

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Photo courtesy of Josefina Loza
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Photo courtesy of Josefina Loza

Candle lighting ceremony

According to tradition, the candle lighting ceremony involves the members of the quinceañera’s court and their dates, along with her parents, each lighting a candle. However, the guest of honor may choose to have other people who are instrumental in her life carry out this ritual. “This is a special moment for the quinceañera and her family, as she honors and thanks those who have made a significant impact in her life,” Loza says. Some families prefer to have a 15 piñatas ceremony — wherein the girl opens 15 small piñatas — instead of a candle lighting.

10 quinceañera gift ideas

Given all this history, determining the right quinceañera gift can be tricky. “Guests should consider gifts that honor the birthday girl’s step into adulthood while respecting her cultural heritage,” Loza says. Therefore, a good gift idea will typically include a religious item, such as a rosary or bible. But anything that might help support her future endeavors in adulthood would be a good idea as well.

1. Bible

Because a quinceañera is a religious affair, a copy of the good book makes for a perfect present. “A bible is a reminder to keep God’s word as a central part of your life,” Loza says. Keep in mind, though, that the birthday girl’s close family may already have planned to give her one in the form of a family heirloom bible, so offering a personalized bible in colors and styles she likes might be a better gift.

2. Birthstone earrings

“Earrings are a reminder to always listen to the word of God, and the Holy Spirit,” Loza says. So, a pair of gold hoop birthstone earrings would make a great present.

3. Money or savings bonds

Some families opt not to throw their daughter a party but rather send her on a special trip instead. A gift that helps fund her travels, or contributes to her education or future plans, is especially thoughtful.

4. Gold cross necklace

The birthday girl, now being considered an adult, is expected to be able to take care of nice things. A cross perfectly represents the religious significance of her quinceañera.

5. Glass jewelry box

This gift will not only help her hold all her new jewelry but serve as a constant reminder of this special day.

6. Butterfly snow globe

Like a butterfly, the birthday girl is going on to the next stage of her life — making this charming snow globe an appropriate gift for the occasion.

7. Engraved music box

This gift can hold her favorite trinkets and keepsakes from her childhood, along with any new gifts she receives.

8. Flowers

The birthday girl, like a flower, is blooming into adulthood. So, a gift of flowers, especially ones symbolizing her birth month, would surely be appreciated.

9. Preserved red roses

Red roses are delightful, but preserved red roses are even better. She will be able to hold onto these for a long time (up to a year with proper care!).

10. Books or educational tools

Offering a gift that helps the girl look ahead to her future in college is a great idea. “The key is to give something meaningful that acknowledges the significance of her transition and respects the family’s cultural traditions,” Loza says.


Michelle Mastro is a freelance writer covering home, lifestyle, travel, and culture stories. Born and raised in Southern California, she now lives in the Midwest.

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