By Ksenija Soster-Olmer
When I first heard about the Red Party, I was intrigued and excited. Remembering the secrecy and negative feelings that surrounded first menstrual periods in my generation, I felt I owed it to my oldest daughter, Tisa, to celebrate this important event. But would she be willing? Or would she be too embarrassed? How would we go about it? We have no experience with rituals and ceremonies as, alas, we are neither a religious nor a very spiritual family.
Tisa was only 11 when I mentioned my idea to her, and her first period still seemed somewhat remote. We talked about people she might want to invite; she said she would let me know when the time came if she was interested, and we left it at that. Now and then I came across something interesting and hid it in a closet--a little statue of a woman, a pair of lacy pajamas, a silk robe in her size. Then one day Tisa came home from school and said, matter-of-factly, "Luckily my friend Sara had a pad with her, because I got my period." I smiled and congratulated her, while hiding some motherly guilt--"You didn't even make sure to give her a pad to take to school!" We had read books together and talked about it all, but I had neglected this crucial detail.
Well, let me make it up to her. How about that party we talked about? She said she would talk to her friends and see what they thought. And what will their mothers think, I wondered. I broached the subject with one of the moms, who was immediately excited. "Oh, I think it is a wonderful idea! I've heard about these ceremonies, but I’ve never been to one."
Once my daughter gave me the green light, I began my research. The woman who first told me about the Red Party e-mailed me the guidelines for a Maidening ceremony her church performed. An old acquaintance who knew about some rituals surrounding the first period said she would be honored to help with the ceremony.
Tisa started to get excited once the date was set. "Mom, could we have lots of candles? Or a fire? How about flower garlands? I saw this great way to put your hair up like the Greeks did in olden times. I want to wear something white or red, and it should be long and flowing."
Half of the fun is in planning and dreaming. I wanted my daughter to dream up the most beautiful ceremony; I wanted her to feel as beautiful as a bride, as a goddess; I wanted to celebrate womanhood with her.
In striving for equality, I had always pushed aside my feminine side. What good was being a woman in a world dominated by men, all brain and very little heart? Only when I became a mother did I come to appreciate my woman’s body. Now I want my daughters to look in the mirror with pride and walk down the street like they own the world, like they are the most beautiful girls in the world. Because they are!
Tisa invited two school friends, a younger girl from down the street, and (after some prodding) the elder of her two younger sisters. Two of the moms joined their daughters. She also invited some women she had always felt close to and admired--an old family friend, a young woman who was her science project mentor, and a neighbor for whom she babysat.
I went on the Internet and searched under menstruation, menarche, and Red Party. I went to the library and bookstores. I talked to other women. I didn’t find any step-by-step instructions for this rite of passage, but rather bits and pieces around which we could design our own ritual: Serve red foods. Wear something red. Include the elements of earth, fire, air, and water. Share stories. Sing. Tie it all together and see what happens.
I was a bit worried about how a bunch of middle-class women from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds (among others, a devout Christian, a nonpracticing Hindu, a Palestinian, and a Hawaiian) would take it. How would we muddle through? Oh, but we did. And it was the most beautiful, moving experience for all of us, girls and women alike.
We gathered in the evening, with the sun going down and the fog blowing in from the ocean. Everyone wore something red, from a bright red-and-gold Indian tunic and pants to a necklace of red beads over a denim dress. The girls set up an altar on a red tablecloth in the middle of our living room floor. They brought in branches from the bay trees surrounding our house and placed the four elements in the four directions: air (east) represented with feathers; fire (south), with a burning candle and smoldering sage; water (west), with a bowl of ocean water and oil; earth (north), with a bowl of red clay. Between two white candles we placed the daisy garland I’d woven for Tisa to wear. We sprinkled red rose petals and other small flowers from the front door to the altar. Each girl held a red candle.
Standing in a circle around the altar, we started with words of welcome and introductions:“I am a daughter of so and so, a mother of so and so, a sister to so and so.” Our wise mistress of ceremonies thanked the elements for their presence and talked about what each means in a woman's life. We learned that air represents our thoughts, ideas, and womanly wisdom; fire our passions and sensuality; water our dreams, visions, and intuition; and earth our body and fertility. We held hands and, timidly at first, then loudly from the heart, sang a beautiful American Indian song:
River she is flowing, growing,
River she is flowing to the sea.
Carry me my mother,
Your Child I will always be.
Carry me my mother to the sea.
River she is flowing…
Then I passed Tisa a box wrapped in red paper. Inside, under many layers of tissue paper, lay a smaller box, crisscrossed by a red velvet ribbon. That box held a small clay statue of the Goddess of Menstruation. "Just as Tisa had to go through all those layers to get to the little statue,” I said, “I would like us to go through all our layers and reach deep inside of us and share our thoughts with her."
As we passed the statue around, we talked about the women we admired, our role models. The girls came up with Amelia Earhart and other women from the past; the women talked about dear friends and an elderly lady from the church who is kind and giving. And of course we remembered, with admiration and tears, our mothers and grandmothers. The Indian woman told us about her grandmother, who entered an arranged marriage at 16 with a man whom she didn't love; another spoke about her mother, who raised seven children. We talked about the struggles and joys of becoming and being women.
Then it was time for the threshold ceremony. We placed a red velvet ribbon on the floor to separate us into two groups: my daughter, surrounded by her friends, each holding a red flaming candle, on one side, and all the women on the other side. I had asked Tisa to bring something that was dear to her and represented her childhood. She chose her oldest stuffed animal, which had a permanent place on her bed. Because I had told her that she would be asked to leave it behind, she had carried it lovingly with her the whole day.
Now here she stood, this woman-child, resplendent in a long red dress (my hand-painted red wedding dress--I always did fly in the face of convention), with her long hair crowned with a garland of flowers, clutching her stuffed animal. In a shaky voice she gave her name in response to the first question, "Who approaches this threshold?" When the next question came, "Are you ready to leave behind your childhood, as you become a Maiden?" she whispered, "No!"
"Well," I said, "When you are ready to step over and join our circle, leave your toy behind." Tisa closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and put down her toy. Then she stepped over the red ribbon and fell sobbing into my arms.
"Welcome, Maiden, on the path to Womanhood," I said. I touched her with the feathers, saying, "May the air fill your sails and send you soaring." Circling her head with the candle, I said, "May the fire not scorch you, but make you strong." Sprinkling water on her, I said, "May the water of life flow freely and gently for you," and holding red clay over her head I ended, "May the Earth be a place of joy for you." Then I offered her a spoonful of honey with the words, "Growing up brings with it the sweetness of life." I sprinkled some salt on her tongue, saying, "And also bitterness of life. As you mature I know you will learn to handle both." With a luscious red strawberry came, "May you never hunger," and with a drink of black currant juice, "May you never thirst."
Then I presented gifts. I placed a heart-shaped necklace ("May this heart protect you!") around her neck and a shell bracelet ("May this bracelet embrace you with the love of your family!") around her wrist. With the flames of their candles, the circle of girls reached over the red ribbon and lit her red candle.
Looking around at the smiling and crying women, I told my daughter, "As you travel on the road to Womanhood and you encounter fears and difficulties, remember that you are not alone. Here is your circle of women who will help you and guide you. And remember that I will always be there for you, no matter how heavy your burden."
Then I offered her the stuffed animal with the words, "Even though you are a Maiden now, it is always good to know that you have a precious little girl inside you. Keep this as a symbol of your childhood and my love for you."
I had asked everyone to bring a stone and a blessing or a wish. With my stone, on which the words “Follow your heart” were written, I read her my blessing, inspired and borrowed from different poems I had found:
On the Road to Womanhood
Be free to be you
Be strong, yet gentle,
Be proud, yet loving.
May your body always be
A blessing to you,
A sacred grove of love and pleasure.
So care for your body
As you would for a beautiful garden.
Your womb can now bring forth new life
But remember yours is the power
To open or close the gates of life
In your garden.
Therefore yours is the responsibility
To be a conscious gardener.
Open to the embrace of love
When you find the one
Who is truly deserving.
Each guest then presented Tisa with a stone and a wish. Some had brought stones with Japanese symbols, others stones from their gardens. My younger daughter had searched the dry streambed for a perfectly smooth stone on which she wrote “Joy, Happiness, Generosity.” It was touching to see these two sisters (who usually have more than their share of disagreements, to put it mildly) hug and express their love for each other with tears in their eyes. Other stones bestowed blessings of courage, wisdom, health, love, knowledge, strength, and financial independence. Tisa wrapped all the stones in a black cloth and tied it with her red velvet ribbon, to keep as a memory and a reminder of qualities she should be striving for.
We ended with a Navajo puberty poem:
Watch over me.
Hold your hand before me in protection.
Stand guard for me, speak in defense of me.
As I speak for you, so do ye.
As you speak for me, thus shall I do.
May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful around me.
Of course, no celebration would be complete without a feast. We filled the glasses with red wine and cranberry juice, and feasted on the wonderful dishes the women had brought--pasta with red peppers, risotto with chunks of red tomatoes, pizza, tomato salad, raspberry mousse cake, strawberries, cherries, and watermelon. And (although it isn’t red) a lot of chocolate!
It was a magical evening of tears, laughter, and special feelings of connection, sisterhood, and joy in the beauty and strength of women. Among the party favors that went home with the guests were the red candles used in the ceremony. One day the girls can use them for their own Red Ceremonies.
Tips for a Successful Menarche Ceremony
- Involve your daughter in planning the ritual. Let her dream her wildest dream, then scale back as necessary.
- Let her choose guests with whom she is comfortable.
- Involve the guests by asking them to prepare food, bring flowers, write down blessings.
- Decorate with red and white flowers and candles.
- Include the four elements and/or elements from your religion.
- Incorporate the idea of transition, as in the threshold ceremony.
- Bestow a special gift.
- End with a feast featuring red or special foods.
- Include music (sing, play instruments, or dance).
FOR MORE INFORMATION
- Books for daughters
Hannelore [accent on last e], Barbara. How to Celebrate Your Daughter’s Coming of Age: In 90 Caring, Creative & Practical Ways. The Women’s Way Program, 2001. 877-297-7482; www.womensway.ws.
O'Grady, Kathleen and Paula Wansbrough. Sweet Secrets: Stories of Menstruation. Sumach Press, 1997.
- Books for mothers
Delaney, Janice, Mary Jane Lupton, and Emily Toth. The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation. University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Grahn, Judy. Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World. Beacon Press, 1994.
Mahdi, Louise, Steven Foster, and Meredith Little, eds. Betwixt & Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation. Open Court, 1987.
Owen, Lara. Honoring Menstruation: A Time of Self-Renewal. The Crossing Press, 1998.
Shuttle, Penelope and Peter Redgrove. The Wise Wound: Menstruation and Everywoman. Marion Boyars Publishing, 1999.
Daughters of the Goddess
Menstrual Health Foundation
Coming of Age Training
Tamara Slayton, director
708 Gravenstein Hwy N, #181
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Mysteries of Life
PO Box 218
North Salem, NY 10560
Ceremonial kit with booklet:
Short, Ann and Helynna Brooke. First Moon: Passage to Womanhood. The Brooke Company, 1997.
Menstrual Goddess statues:
Bell Pine Art Farm
82535 Weiss Road
Creswell, OR 97426
For more information about menarche, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: “The Garnet Ring,” no. 64; “The Power of Menstruation,” no. 58; “Snow White and the Seven Menstrual Dwarves,” no. 57; “In Favor of Menstruation,” no. 32; and “The Joys of Menstruation,” no. 25.
Ksenija Soster-Olmer is a parent educator, La Leche League leader, translator, poet, writer, and student of Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. Originally from Slovenija, she lives in Orinda, California, with her husband, Mirek, a Czech bridge designer, and their three daughters, Tisa (14), Solana (12), and Naya (8)