The term "rite of passage" has been well defined by the posters above, so I'll only address what is significant about them. Rites of passage are the landmarks in a person's growth and development which help a person mark personal development and measure that progress against the growth and development of others. Right or wrong, they help us determine whether or not we are "normal." A rite of passage generally also includes some kind of epiphany or enlightment as a consequence of the experience. In other words, a person should understand something more about himself and the world he lives in after the rite of passage experience.
An excellent short story that marks a metaphorical rite of passage is "Through the Tunnel" by Doris Lessing, where one boy, Jerry, has to create his own rite of passage to mark his transtion from childhood into adulthood. This story is very interesting because it seems to comment on the way that modern society has removed traditional rites of passage and left children unable to mark or show that they have become adults. I think rites of passage are very important and need to be somehow included in society today, as they are valuable in terms of establishing the identity of children and marking their growth and development.
Rite of passage in many cultures denotes the entry into adulthood by teens. For many cultures, the rite of passage is limited to that of the male's official entry to manhood and his being given due respect as a man. In America there are few rites of passage left since young adults do things that heretofore were reserved for a special occasion. One such occasion that marked a rite of passage so to speak was the high school prom. On this night, girls wore evening dresses for the first time, and sometimes they stayed out all night as another mark of adulthood. But, of course, with the leniency of American parents now, Prom night is just another long night of partying.
It's important to realize that a rite of passage is the actual event (or ceremony) that marks the change in a person's life. One of the most meaningful rites of passage that I have seen in literature is the Manhood Training that Kunta Kinte participates in within Alex Haley's Roots. This series of tasks (the "least" of which being the entrapment of a bird without weapons and the "greatest" of which being circumcision) is undertaken within Kinte's African tribe when the male child reaches thirteen. Before this rite of passage, the boy is a child. After this rite of passage, the boy is a man. The entire demeanour of the person changes after this event. I remember vividly Kunta Kinte returning from Manhood Training and telling his mother that "a woman should not tell a man what to do" while Kunta's grandmother (played by a matronly Maya Angelou) immediately proceeds to beat Kunta Kinte to a pulp proclaiming, "You do not know everything. I am still your grandmother. And Allah is still greater than you!" Yes, Kunta Kinte is certainly now a man. : )
A rite of passage is a ritual or a set of rituals that allows an individual to move from one social status to another. Rites of passage are important to the individual and to the society in a number of ways.
Rites of passage typically move a person between distinct but important stages of life. Because these stages are so different, it can be difficult for both the individual and other members of the society to accept that the person has moved from one stage to the next. Rites of passage are important because they help everyone to assimilate the fact of this change.
For example, a marriage ceremony may help both an individual and the rest of society to understand that the person involved in the marriage is now truly an adult. Without such a ceremony, a person's parent's, for example, might have a hard time accepting that their child truly has grown up and moved to a fully adult status. The rite itself makes that realization easier both for the parent and the child.