When we imagine a child receiving their first haircut, it’s usually around toddler age, with the impatient and angry child wriggling around and turning their head in every direction except the one needed… Most parents will agree that it’s probably not the ideal age to expect a child to sit still and be good, while a stranger cuts your precious baby hair...
People of the Polynesian Islands however, do things a little differently…For young Polynesian boys, they have to wait until they are a teenager to receive their first cut, by which time they have grown rather attached to their beautiful long locks! Nevertheless, this is an important Polynesian custom which represents the boys coming of age process, where he is to embrace his new masculine identity and become a man.
Traditionally, this ritual has spiritual symbolism for Polynesians, despite the dispute over its origins. Some believe that the customary teenage haircut derived from missionary influence, whereby the local people would be encouraged to cut their children’s hair short (just like those of the missionaries). However, there is a lot of dispute over this claim, saying that these traditions and rituals predate any missionary on the Islands.
The spiritual aspect of this custom is fascinating, with a strong belief in Mana, which is a strong spiritual force/form of energy which we all possess. Polynesians believe that our hair contains Mana, which links to our bodies, so it is culturally very rare to have reason to cut your hair. In ancient tradition, it is believed that even the disposal of hair must be a considered matter, for even a passing bird that manages to catch a strand of hair and uses it to build a nest, can have consequences…A headache for that person!!
Tradition can vary from island to island, and of course, family to family. However, the main aspect of this tradition is that the boys grow their hair until they are ready for manhood, with their female family members lovingly caring for and tending to the boys hair until that time comes. Then, during the ceremony, the hair is tended to for the last time, with the females sectioning and tying ribbons into the hair before the individual cuts are made.
Usually, the hair is cut by family and friends, or when Christianity is part of the family’s religion/culture, a priest can be included in the rituals, offering blessings and even taking the first cut. This combination of cultures is something to celebrated, especially in a time when differences can often cause conflict.
The ceremony can take place at home, in places of worship or in lavish venues; it is all dependent on the family’s individual circumstance and preference. One constant feature throughout is ‘celebration’, with families and communities coming together for the occasion. A customary brightly coloured quilt called a Tivaevae, which is used in all traditional rituals, is draped over the seating where the boy receives his haircut.
With each cut, the child is covered with money from guests, which is used to pay for expenses before being gifted to the boy. This enhances a sense of community belonging and development, with the community as well as family uniting to celebrate and support the boys transition to adulthood.
Here is a beautiful example of a young man's first cut and the tradition and culture the ceremony entails, from Wellington, New Zealand...