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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor – First Birthday Celebrations (돌잔치)

Posted in customs, Health care, Korean children by 노강호 on June 10, 2011

the first birthday party – when baby is 2

Poverty and hardship have left deep impressions on the Korean cultural landscape many of which are still evident today. Korean food, often reflects former economic hardships which is one reason why black-noodles (자짱면) is still a favourite when students graduate. Though many families now go to elaborate buffet restaurants, black-noodles are still eaten to mark graduation as it was at one time considered a ‘luxury’ food. The obsessions Koreans have with food, which might be expected if you are starving, almost matches the British obsession with the weather, the result of living in an unpredictable climate. I am still not used to responding appropriately when a Korean asks me if ‘I’ve eaten’ and on so many occasions still reply with a list of what comprised my last meal or perceive it as the opening for an invite to dine together. Instead, they are really inquiring as to my general well being but so ingrained has this become that for some, even this is not implied and the comment reduced to a basic nicety void of any real meaning and synonymous to British observation about the weather.  Historically however, it developed at a time when many people were starving and was a question of much deeper significance. Dog stew (보신탕), silk worm (번데기), grasshopper (메뚜기) and a whole range of roots, woods and barks, many of which grow in the UK (shepherd’s purse 냉이, burdock 우엉, ㅡmugwort 쑥, etc, but which are no longer commonly used), reflect the former scarcity of food.

a lavish affair – Lee On-yu’s (이온유) 1st birthday. Hee-ho, On-yu’s older brother, who was the subject of an earlier post, is on the far right (Diary of a Little Boy)

Former high infant mortality rates can be attributed to the custom of a child being one year of age upon being born and with infancy and childhood being so precious, when circumcision was introduced to the peninsula, in the 1950’s, it was an ordeal sparred babies and infants and instead postponed to early adolescence. In 2006, Korea was cited by a UN report (link) of having the world’s lowest infant mortality rate of 3 (3 in 1000) compared to 45 in 1970.  A further development of the high infant mortality rate was the importance of a child’s first birthday celebration (돌잔치),  when in Korean reckoning they are two years old.

traditional first birthday attire - the dol-bok (돌복)

traditional first birthday attire – the dol-bok (돌복)

45 deaths per thousand within the first year doesn’t seem high until you consider that currently, 49 deaths per 1000 is the global average and that today’s most poverty stricken countries have infant mortality rates of around 50 per 1000.  The fear your baby may have been one of the unfortunate led to babies, pre and post natal mothers being secluded until deemed healthy. The threats to life weren’t just from disease but also from famine and the wide swings  in the Korean climate. Even today, circumcision is usually carried out in the winter rather than the summer vacation where the incredibly high humidity prolongs healing and increases the chances of infection.

Un-yu. The microphone he played with suggests he might be a future singer – he was certainly in good voice here

The first significant event to celebrate was a child’s 100th day celebration, the baek-il (백일). However, as might be expected, this was a fairly low-key affair and the baby wasn’t ‘publicly’ paraded. On the child’s first birthday, at two years of age, it was time for parents to present their baby to the world and hence the lavish dol-jan-ch’i (돌잔치) celebration.

In today’s affluent Korean society, this event usually takes place in a large, specifically designed function room to which families and friends are invited. Historically, and traditionally, the celebration varied depending on local custom. Today, the baby maybe be casually dressed or might be attired in the highly colourful dol-bok  (돌복) which differ according to gender. An elaborate buffet is provided which, along with the usual food one might expect, are foods of a more traditional and symbolic nature.

what will it be?

Now the child has survived the most threatening period of childhood, it is time to ponder what they might achieve in life and hence one of the most important parts of the celebration is when the baby is sat on a traditional duvet, propped by pillows and surrounded by objects which if played with or handled, predict the child’s future. The objects include:

pen, brush, book or calligraphy set – scholar

bow and arrow – warrior/soldier/strength (not as common as in the past)

rice cake – rich or possibly unintelligent

money -rich

thread – long life

ruler, scissors, needle – dexterous

However, numerous other gifts might appear, such as a microphone for a potential singer or a gold ball for a golf player. Nowadays, you seem to be able to add what you want.

The first birthday party has a long tradition and there are numerous variations to the celebrations which I have not done justice to in this short account. A good starting point for more in-depth information can be found at Wikipedia.

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