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The best part of 50th birthday parties

They seem to have gotten more elaborate, but their real meaning is very simple.

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I’ve never been to a quinceanera — the traditional party given for 15-year-old girls as a sort of bat mitzvah/debutante/you-are-now-a-woman celebration popular in Latin America. However, I have recently been to several cincuentaneras (fetes for folks turning 50). And they are getting elaborate.

My sister’s 50th birthday party was a family reunion of sorts, with cousins arriving from all over the country. It was the first time we had all been together since an unexpected funeral; this was much more fun.

I realized the big-deal cincuentanera was a trend when I spoke to a woman who rendezvoused with seven of her childhood friends on a girls-only weekend out in Jackson, Wyoming. I couldn’t help but try to calculate how much money that cost (and how lucky they were to have eight accommodating spouses).


Locally, I was enlisted to join a one-off rock band for a surprise 50th. We set up in the back room of an Irish pub and surprised the guest of honor. He had no idea it was coming, especially as it was months before his actual birthday. But we played a few songs, and he jumped in on bass guitar.

Then his wife, who runs a local theater company, narrated a short one-act play she wrote, describing their courtship and marriage. Her theater troupe acted out the parts; it was both hilarious and moving.

As we left the party, I kiddingly told my friend’s wife she’d put me in a bad spot by raising the bar so high. You see, my wife was about to hit that age. The pressure was on.

A quinceanera, like many coming-of-age ceremonies in various religions and cultures, is about learning to act like an adult. After all, adolescence itself is like a first draft in the creation of an adult persona, with many edits and rewrites to follow.


By the time you celebrate a cincuentanera, on the other hand, you should have a pretty good sense of yourself. There’s still time to take up new things, but you basically know who you are and what you love to do, and there’s no point in hiding any of it.

What to do for my wife?

When I met her, my wife was a regular at various salsa dancing events around Boston. In fact, I remembered that when we first saw the house we now live in, she said, “My dream would be to have a salsa dance party out on that deck one day.” Having kids had interrupted our weekly salsa dancing, but for her birthday, I managed to find the dance teacher who had prepped us for our wedding dance 15 years earlier. He agreed that our deck was suitable for a salsa night.

The day of the party was a beautiful, cool autumn evening. A dozen couples took a group dance lesson, old dogs trying to learn a new trick. The salsa rhythm was not easy for everyone to pick up, but we were too old to be self-conscious and we laughed off our mistakes like teenagers. Eventually we were moving to the rhythm together, twirling and stepping.

That night, I could feel my wife grinning in her sleep.

I know she loved the dancing, but what really thrilled her was the company. She had invited friends she had made in every decade of her life. A high school pal connected with one of our new neighbors; college alumni who didn’t know each other at school reminisced about shared experiences. The party reminded my wife of the breadth and depth of her community.


Turns out you don’t need a glamorous setting or original entertainment to have a great cincuentanera. In the end, the best way to measure the success of half a century of living may be by taking stock of all the friends you’ve made.

Jack Cheng writes in Waban and on Twitter @jakcheng. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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