A quinceañera celebrates a girl’s 15th birthday.

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For Hispanic girls in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the United States and elsewhere, the 15th birthday marks the most lavish celebration of their lives. Designating a girl’s transition from childhood to adulthood, the quinceañera is a two-part festivity that traces back to both indigenous and European cultural traditions and has become an increasingly opulent affair in recent years. Parents may even spend more on their daughters' "Sweet 15" quinceañeras than their weddings, in fact, which is why some refer them as mini bodas, or miniature weddings. Not counting the birthday presents a young girl might receive, a low-end quinceañera in the United States can easily cost about $3,000 [source: Colloff].

One look at a quince girl (a nickname for the quinceañera honoree) on her special day, and the high price tag makes sense. First off, there's the outfit: Often made of satin with lace overlays and rhinestone accents, quinceañera dresses, the visible centerpieces of these celebrations, mirror what Cinderella might’ve worn to her fairytale ball. The floor-length gowns are traditionally white or pale pink, but the revived quinceañera culture accepts dresses in a rainbow of hues. Perched on the quince girl’s head is a delicate tiara or crown, the symbolism of which we’ll discuss later in the article, and in her hands -- at least at the beginning of the ceremony -- she might hold a Bible or book of prayer.

Although its emphasis is more on the party than the prayer, the quinceañera starts at the local Catholic church. Before any birthday cake is cut, the quince girl attends a special Mass in which she reaffirms her dedication to God and receives a blessing from the priest. Afterward, the Sweet 15 reception gets underway, typically involving some combination of choreographed dance sequences, limousine arrivals, sumptuous spreads of food and desserts, and an official presentation of the quince girl to fiesta attendees. Similar to cotillion and debutante traditions, quinceañeras serve as young Hispanics’ official entrance into society and womanhood and incorporate a host of unique elements and rituals that celebrate girls’ birthdays, as well as their heritage.