In Korea, the first birthday, called Dol or Doljanchi is a major milestone. This is because in the olden days, many children didn’t live through the first year, often due to malnutrition, disease or even issues such as hypothermia (it gets cold in winter) or from overheating in the summer (it can also get quite hot). So sufficed to say, the first birthday is an auspicious symbol of health, long-life and good luck.
The celebration is quite elaborate and as is usual in Korea, quite colourful. I’m going to try and describe the meaning behind a lot of various elements so that when you see the pictures from Kalden’s first birthday, you’ll have a better understanding of what was involved. Here are the key elements:
Decor – Traditionally, the ceremony was done in the home and the whole village used to celebrate a baby’s first birthday, sharing food and wishing for long life and fortune for the child. However, these days, because many friends and family members are usually invited, people have started going to restaurants and special halls to celebrate. This is because of the food and elaborate decorations involved, it is somewhat easier to let a catering service handle everything.
The main elements for overall decorations are a colourful backdrop and/or elaborate screen, a small throne, a table with traditional food, each with its own meaning and another table or tray with specific items on it. I’ll try to explain each one.
- Ball of thread - This represents a long life
- Tie – We’re not sure what this is…
- Boots – This represents a life well-travelled
- Table – The table holds all of the food and other decorations
- Calligraphy Brush and Ink - This represents good education and intelligence
- Tray of Items for the choosing ceremony – See below
- Bowl of daisies - In the olden days, as villagers would travel to the ceremony, they would pick wild flowers from the side of the road to offer the child as good luck.
- Tin trays and serving bowls – These are for laying out the fruit and rice cakes that are offered as part of the ceremony.
- Pin cushions - This is placed for girls as part of the ceremony to represent being good domestic workers.
- Pendant – In the olden days in Korea there were people who held very high positions for the government whereby they would dress as commoners and observe society, reporting back to the Emperor on trends, potential societal issues and gather intelligence. This pendant was all they had to identify themselves when needed. It represents the importance of being grounded and humble.
- Tied water celery - This represents fertility, love and connectedness.
- Bow and Arrow – One of the choosing items that represents strength.
- Peonies – Peonies and the vase represent a peaceful existence.
- Throne and throne cushion – Because he is a little Emperor for a day!
Costume – The birthday babies wear a hanbok and a traditional hat: a jobawi or gulle for baby girls and a bokgeon or hogeon (호건) for baby boys. The hat Kalden will wear has what appear to be pointy elf-like ears and eyes on it. It looks pretty cool. Sort of like the boy below.
Food – At home family members give thanks to Samshin (three gods who take care of the baby’s life while growing up) by serving plain rice, seaweed soup, and rice cakes. For the party, parents prepare a special ‘Dol’ table, where food is stacked high to symbolize a life of prosperity for the baby. The table is set mainly with a rice cake of pretty rainbow layers, seaweed soup, and fruits. Miyeok guk (seaweed soup) is served on every birthday after the first birthday to remind people of what their mother went through to bring them into the world.
Ceremony – The highlight of the dol is a ritual where the child is placed in front of a table of foods and objects such as string, brushes, ink and money. The child is then urged to pick up an object from the table. It is believed the one selected will foretell the child’s future. For example, if the child picks up a brush or book, he/she is destined to be smart. If he/she picks up money he will be wealthy; If he/she picks up food that means he/she will not be hungry. If the child picks up the thread, it is believed he/she will live a long life. The types of objects placed on the table for the baby to choose has evolved over time, as a reflection of society’s evolving perception of successful occupations. However, many parents remain more traditional in their selection of objects to place on the table. This is followed by feasting, singing and playing with the toddler. Most often, guests will present gifts of money, clothes, or gold rings to the parents for the child at this time.
For example, if the object is a:
- bow and arrow – the child will become a warrior or have a military career
- needle and thread – the child will have a long life
- jujube - the child will have many descendants
- book, pencil, brush – the child will be a successful scholar
- ruler, needle, scissors – the child will be talented with his/her hands
- knife - the child will be a good cook
- money or rice - the child will be wealthy
- cakes or other foods - the child will be a government official
- stethoscope – the child will become a medical professional (preferably a doctor)
- gavel – the child will be a successful lawyer
We’re taking bets on what Kalden chooses on Saturday. Feel free to place your bet in the comments!