21st Birthdays in New Zealand: An Explanation

Last Saturday, I went to my first New Zealand 21st birthday. I’ve had several Americans ask me what makes twenty-firsts different here in New Zealand, and several Kiwis ask what the American equivalent is, so I decided to write a post about it (in part selfishly, so I don’t have to keep repeating my explanation).

The most succinct description I’ve heard for a Kiwi 21st is a single-person wedding. The one I went to definitely felt that way: dressing up, speeches, gifts, cake, dancing, etc.

I’ve also compared them to quinceañeras in hispanic cultures and bar/bat mitzvahs in Jewish culture, but having never been to those events personally, these are just assumptions on my part. Same goes for debutante balls, my knowledge of which being limited to an episode of Gilmore Girls.

Another comparison that crossed my mind was prom. Since this particular 21st (my friend Gabi’s) was a black-tie theme, I got a formal dress and had my nails, hair and make-up done. Some are more casual. One of my friends had a pirates-themed 21st, which sounds pretty darn epic, in my book.

Twenty-firsts here are essentially a coming-of-age celebration. At some, your parents present you with a key — not really a key to the city, more like a key the world, I guess you could say.

The speeches made it feel like a wedding, and at least one New Zealander I know drew parallels to a funeral. That might sound morbid, but it isn’t, really: you’re sharing what the person being celebrated means to you while they’re still alive. A pre-eulogy, if you will.

Gabi’s 21st was held at a church, but it’s also common for them to take place at a hotel or someone’s home. We played a how-well-do-know-the-birthday-girl quiz, and her dad showed a slideshow he’d assembled of photos and videos of her life.

Here are some photos of the night.

My friend Hannah did my hair and make-up:

10744662_10205050219245372_1781746300_nIMG_5061All dolled up and ready to party!


With the birthday girl:IMG_5076

Now, as far as American equivalents to New Zealand twenty-firsts go … I don’t think we have one.

Lots of Kiwis have asked if American Sweet Sixteens are similar to their twenty-firsts (they’ve probably seen that MTV show My Super Sweet 16). My answer is almost always, “Americans don’t have Sweet Sixteens unless they’re southern or stupid rich.” But from what I know of them, I suppose they could be similar. My own 16th birthday consisted of a big band-themed party, and while it was a blast, it wasn’t really any different from any other birthday I’ve had.

Likewise, 21 is the drinking age in the States, so twenty-first birthdays are nearly all alcohol-centric (pub crawls, 21 runs, etc.). For mine, my brother drove across the state to be my designated driver and a small group of us went to a few bars, where we drank and danced. It was fun (and tame, compared to most Americans’ twenty-firsts) but I think the Kiwi version is a lot more meaningful.

For one thing, 21 seems like the right age to have such an event. You know yourself better than you did at 13 or 16 or 18. You’ve matured a bit; you’ve got a better grasp on what your passions are and where your life might lead. I know I’d be more appreciative of everything that went into such an event (and the people there) at 21 than I would have been as a teenager.

Hopefully this has been a thorough tutorial. Let me know (Kiwis and Americans alike) if there’s anything I left out!


About Andrea Nicole

NZ enthusiast in the PNW. Internationally published writer, educator, grammar nerd, genealogist, and all-around storyteller. Recovering homebody. @Whitworth and @WGU alumna. #edchat
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