Gender-reveal parties and other rites of passage are all the rage, especially when they're Insta-friendly, writes Paul Little.

Christenings, engagement parties, 21sts, capping ceremonies, housewarmings, baby showers, bah mitzvahs, pōwhiri, weddings and funerals. We are a society built on rituals, whether we recognise them as such or not. To some that list represents a litany of transitional events calling for ceremonial structure. To others, they're an excuse to get drunk. But all mark some kind of major life change.

Particular rituals come and go in popularity, but we're never short of an excuse for a traditional event calling for ceremonial structure.

Some kinds of rituals are trending: gender reveal parties, one-off rites made to order for people's own needs, and those incorporating Māori tradition into non-Māori occasions are all on the up.

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Kate Hudson at her baby shower. Photo / Instagram
Kate Hudson at her baby shower. Photo / Instagram

Meanwhile, there are a few that have either fallen by the wayside or are slow to take off: period parties to celebrate the onset of menstruation, for instance, whose roots go back millennia; or more recently overseas, godparent proposals, when an expectant couple will take two friends out for a quasi-romantic date and pop the question: will you be our baby's godmother/father?

Gender reveals are the hottest new thing on the ritual scene. It's only since the 1980s that parents have been able to take the advice of ultrasound scans as to the sex of their child. The merch has taken a lot longer to come onstream but it's here now, and yes, social media has to accept a lot of the blame.

Actress Kate Hudson last year revealed she was pregnant, and having a girl, when she posted a video to Instagram of her and partner Danny Fujikawa popping balloons which release pink confetti.

Our own Dame Valerie Adams melted hearts with an Instagram post revealing she was pregnant with her second shild. Her baby daughter Kimoana, wearing a tiny Comonwealth Games top, was seen holding a sign saying, "I'm going to be a sister".

Another post revealed the gender - Kimoana held another sign announcing, "baby bro is on the way".

But sometimes announcements don't go according to plan. Earlier this month, a man's car was confiscated and four people charged over a burnout in Sydney which saw blue smoke fill a quiet cul-de-sac.

The car released the coloured smoke to reveal the sex of the expectant parents' baby, but the neighbours weren't impressed and posted a video online. Police were alerted.

Jenny Davison of Pixie Party Supplies in Mt Eden offers a range of products to make your gender reveal go off with a bang. Perhaps you'll issue your friends with champagne poppers that release pink or blue confetti on your signal.

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"Mainly what we sell and how we help people announce whether they're having a boy or girl is the big black balloons filled with pink or blue confetti," says Davison. "There's also an increase in people getting confetti cannons and smoke cannons and we've also recently brought in gender reveal piñatas in the shape of a question mark."

Not that this means you get away without a baby shower. On the contrary. "The baby shower is still the more traditional place for people to give gifts. If you've done a gender reveal you know whether you are buying for a boy or girl."

It's super social-media friendly, made for that live Facebook feed with family and pals so everyone gets the news at once. But if you want to host an IRL affair, Pixie Party Supplies also has invitations cards that say "Little Man or Little Miss?".

As that suggests, the gender reveal crowd tends to have pretty fixed ideas about male and female, boy and girl. Not for them the notion that gender is a social construct imposed on individuals. Which is why Ciara Cremin, senior lecturer in sociology within the Faculty of Arts at the University of Auckland, is not a fan, although she has strong views about the role of rituals in society.

Valerie Adams' daughter Kimoana announces she has a sibling on the way. Photo / Instagram
Valerie Adams' daughter Kimoana announces she has a sibling on the way. Photo / Instagram
Dame Valerie Adams' daughter Kimoana during her gender reveal of her son last year. Photo / Supplied
Dame Valerie Adams' daughter Kimoana during her gender reveal of her son last year. Photo / Supplied

"Gender reveal parties reinforce norms that are in themselves damaging," says Cremin.
"You're defining the gender of a child before they are born, which sets them on a pathway through life that has the defect of reinforcing divisions that structure patriarchy. A gender reveal party is not an innocent way in which people get together and celebrate each other."

But she's not surprised that new rituals are coming on-stream. She says we need them.

"The proliferation of rituals today is symptomatic of our alienated condition – as people in a more secular society become more divorced from church and community and perhaps even family, there is an increased need for some kind of mechanism by which they can actually come together. They are symptomatic of the need that all of us have for association."

That's the psychological basis for our rituals, but Cremin also sees a strong commercial imperative at work.

Blue smoke emanates from a car during a gender reveal by a New South Wales man for his yet-to-be-born baby. Photo / Channel 7
Blue smoke emanates from a car during a gender reveal by a New South Wales man for his yet-to-be-born baby. Photo / Channel 7

"I don't suppose many of these rituals are the product of the imagination of these isolated individuals. They are often the product of commercial manipulation – means by which various businesses or enterprises can make money. Where rituals are modern-day inventions, business tacks on to them - for instance, organising events at which alcohol is served to make money."

Cremin says rituals also reinforce conservative values in other areas: "In Britain and here, in this colonised land, you've got the monarchy and rituals around weddings."

She's suspicious of events such as Anzac Day that focus on national sacrifice and loss. "We need to be careful of turning these events into celebrations of society as it is, which is full of problems and contradictions."

Not that all the new rituals have to be communal. You won't spend long talking to a celebrant before you hear them complain that they're stuck in a hatched, matched and dispatched ghetto when they have so much more to offer, being trained to provide tailor-made ceremonies for any occasion.

Dr Ciara Cremin, sociology lecturer at Auckland University. Photo / Dean Purcell
Dr Ciara Cremin, sociology lecturer at Auckland University. Photo / Dean Purcell

Celebrant Kelly Townsend devised her own ritual as part of dealing with "a really painful year" that included the end of a relationship.

"I did a transition ceremony, which was really helpful," says Townsend. "I drew a line in the sand on Orewa Beach with a couple of stick figures. I said my thank-yous, acknowledged and celebrated where I'd been, then stated my intention of moving forward and stepped across just as the tide came up and wiped out the line. The process of designing the ceremony is just as healing, if not moreso, than the ceremony itself."

That's how most rituals work – a simple act often symbolising something complex. Many rituals, for instance, involve water, as cleansing is often part of their aim. Examples are everywhere – from that happy day in which Jesus "washed my sins away" to that moment in South Pacific when Mitzi Gaynor told us she would "wash that man right outta my hair".

Sandy Millar recently qualified as a celebrant, and had to devise a non-traditional ritual as a component of her Certificate in Celebrant Studies.

Jenny Davison, owner of Pixie Party Supplies, with a gender-reveal balloon. Photo / Doug Sherring
Jenny Davison, owner of Pixie Party Supplies, with a gender-reveal balloon. Photo / Doug Sherring

Her friend was getting a tattoo of the Chinese goddess Quan Yin, known for both her compassion and warrior-like characteristics. Millar devised a ceremony that acknowledged these conflicting elements, and sought support from friends and family for the application of the tattoo, a significant physical and emotional investment for her friend.

Of course, tattoos themselves are a rite of passage for many – which is part of the reason why you have to be a legal adult to get one - so this was a ritual about a ritual.

And while pre-natal rituals may be all the go, other age groups are missing out.

One obvious gap in the celebrant market, so to speak, is anything much that acknowledges the transition from childhood to adulthood, an area in which the consequences may be more obvious and serious than making sure your tattoo goes okay.

Kathrine Fraser is director of The Celebrant School. She notes that "some people say the reason we have high rates of gang membership or antisocial behaviour is because there is nothing to acknowledge that adolescence is a transition with new responsibilities or roles."

The act of transitioning gender itself might seem something that is well worth marking ritually, but that seems slow to catch on. Trans support group Agender spokesperson Paula Beckham says some people might take their old clothes and burn them, symbolically casting out the old gender. And some people celebrate the day on which they received legal recognition to their gender as their trans birthday, although, says Beckham: "Personally I still remember it as the day I was born."

She thinks things will change. "As time moves on and as people come through the process and we become more visible, these kinds of things will become more mainstream."

Kentucky mum Heather Green posted this picture of her son after he transitioned. Photo / Facebook
Kentucky mum Heather Green posted this picture of her son after he transitioned. Photo / Facebook

In January, Kentucky mother Heather Green celebrated her son's 20th birthday with a Facebook gender reveal.

Adrian Brown had come out as transgender a few months prior and Green wanted to tell friends and family in a fun way without having to repeat the conversation.

The series of heartwarming photos including one of Brown swaddled in a blanket which read "it's a boy", one of him sitting in a box holding blue balloons, and others of him being embraced by his mother and younger brother.

Green with Adrian and her other son Lucas. Photo / Facebook
Green with Adrian and her other son Lucas. Photo / Facebook

The photoshoot led to an outpouring of support on social media.

Across all kinds of rituals, old and new, for all genders and ages, one trend cutting across other divisions is the increasingly mainstream incorporation of a Māori component. Pākehā funerals have been strongly influenced by tangi, and a pōwhiri, at least, has been standard practice in the likes of government departments and local bodies for some time.

Scotty Morrison, broadcaster, author and warrior for all things Māori, is frequently asked to perform traditional ceremonies for contemporary events. And although rituals in general evolve to keep up with social change, Morrison deviates as little as possible from words that go back millennia.

Stacey Morrison and husband Scotty Morrison with their three children. Scotty is asked to perform Maori ceremonies at traditional events. Photo / Doug Sherring
Stacey Morrison and husband Scotty Morrison with their three children. Scotty is asked to perform Maori ceremonies at traditional events. Photo / Doug Sherring

"Adhering to the responsibility of our ancient incantations and using them in modern settings is quite a challenge," says Morrison, who has been asked to help inaugurate everything from schools and housing developments to a Mercedes Benz facility.

"The impetus usually comes from the people in control of the business - a CEO or high-ranking manager who wants it to be done. I have a conversation with them and ascertain whether people are genuine and why they want it. Attitudes are changing and people are starting to realise there is a lot of value in embracing aspects of Māori culture." Although he still gets asked "why it has to be done at 5am rather than 10am".

Much discussion of the March 15 Christchurch mosques massacre centred on how comfortably Muslim custom was incorporated into the response. But Morrison notes also that "people were using Māori terminology to express how they felt. There were a lot of haka performed and a lot of people across the country were relying on Māori incantation and karakia to support them and give them a place to put their grief."

All in one

Te Waimaarino Patena and Tama Hata with daughter Te Aroha, during the gender reveal of their second child. Photo / Supplied
Te Waimaarino Patena and Tama Hata with daughter Te Aroha, during the gender reveal of their second child. Photo / Supplied

Tama Hata is a lecturer in the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Waikato and a one-man compendium of contemporary ritual practices. He combined a gender reveal, relationship anniversary, romantic weekend away (also a ritual, in the realm of coupledom), marriage proposal and haka.

And he did it for the best of reasons – to mark all those occasions in a ritual way. He and partner Te Waimaarino Patena had a daughter, Te Aroha Hanenepounamu Roselyn Hata, and were expecting a second child. At their scan, Te Waimaarino said she didn't want to know the result but he did and found out after she left the room.

He plotted a mystery weekend in Queenstown for the three of them at which he would tell her what they were having and ask her to marry him.

In order to organise everything, he spent the night before they were due to fly out at a friend's, to his partner's chagrin. But a night apart or in isolation is traditionally part of many rituals.

Tama Hata surprised his partner on their 10th anniversary with the most heartwarming gender reveal and marriage proposal you'll see today, with Queenstown as the backdrop and an original Haka to celebrate their love.

Making the proposal a haka was something that occurred to him just an hour before it was due to happen. "It didn't come from a tikanga or Māori aspect," says Hata, who decided to "make words up on the spot and let my emotions and the wairua take over".

Hata is not a balloon guy. His reveal was in the form of "a box full of blue items, Nike socks and pants, a little blue package of apparel and shoes".

And for the icing on the cake (another component in many rituals), video of the event went viral, with more than 10 million YouTube views and an approach from an international licensing company that has seen his online IP protected.

Oh, and she said yes. Tautūrangi Okuratawhiti Nui Marire Hata is 1 month old.