Doljanchi: The First Korean Birthday

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Birthdays are special occasions in most cultures around the world, each country has its own traditions, whether it’s getting your ears pulled in Spain, eating a bowl of extra-long noodles in China, or throwing a luxurious party when turning fifteen as in Latin America, it is an opportunity to share with friends and family, and a date we often look forward to. South Korea is no exception, the doljanchi (돌잔치), or simply dol (), is a millennial rite of great importance that marks the celebration of a baby’s first year of life and that continues taking place with great emotion even 4000 years after its origin in the reign of King Jeongjo of Joseon (조선 정조). But what is peculiar about this event? Why is it characterized by the fact that parents can guess the fortune of their children? Stay to learn more about this celebration in which the future of a little kid lies at their fingertips.

Although nowadays it is considered a tender moment, the doljanchi keeps behind it a heartbreaking history that dates back to a period in which Korea was a territory of continuous wars where due to the economic crisis, famine, extreme weather and disease outbreaks combined with poor medical knowledge; children died early, most even before they were 100 days old. In 1800, one in two children died in South Korea, and even in the 1950s the infant mortality rate was an alarming 26%. It is for this reason that when a baby exceeded the year of age, not only his family but also the rest of the town gathered to commemorate this date with a great feast in which through prayers, people gave thanks for the good health of the infant and wished they luck and longevity. Currently, Korea is a developed country where the infant mortality rate has been reduced to 3%, and while it is not uncommon for a child to pass that age without major setbacks, the doljanchi has remained as a fun celebration attended by family and friends, and that reminds South Koreans of their origins and traditions, but especially about what they had to face as a society to become what they are today.

When a child’s birthday is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind for many of us are balloons, children running around, and playing with the cake, but that is not the case on this solemn occasion. For doljanchi, some parents prefer to organize a small party at home only for family members, but others decide to rent an event room with a buffet to celebrate in style, usually the weekend before the actual baby’s birthdate to make it easier for guests to attend. This celebration has several key components:

1) Prayers: The parents will thank two Korean gods to begin the dol rite; Sanshin (산신), the spirit of the mountain, and Samshin (삼신), the goddess of birth who will protect the child until they are seven years old. 

2) Clothing: The honoree will be dressed in their first hanbok (한복), the traditional Korean dress, accompanied by a traditional hat called jobawi (조바위) or gulle (굴레) for girls and bokgeon (복건) or hogeon (호건) for boys. Many commercial areas, mainly the Dongdaemun Market (동대문시장) in Seoul, sell prefabricated modernized versions of these garments, however, the authentic traditional clothing would need to be custom ordered or tailored.

3) Food: On a special beautifully decorated table called dolsang (돌상), bowls of rice, fruit, and stacked rice cakes of different colors, called tteok (), will be placed symbolizing prosperity and the future achievements of the baby, seaweed soup or miyeok guk (미역국) will also be served, this is a dish that mothers usually consume after childbirth for its healing properties and which is customary to eat on all subsequent birthdays to remember that event.

4) Doljabi (돌잡이): It is made up of the words dol (), which refers to the first birthday ceremony, and jabi (잡이), which comes from the word grab or hold. This is the most anticipated moment of the event and consists of a ceremony in which the child is placed in front of six to nine objects so that they grab the ones that most attract them, generally from one to three. All items have different meanings, but the same purpose, to wish for the health and happiness of the baby and to predict their future; as well as the so-called dreams of conception or taemong (태몽), which expectant mothers, their husbands or relatives have and are believed to help predict even the sex of the baby.

Over time, the tradition has evolved as well as the objects that are placed to be selected, some of them remain and others have disappeared or have been replaced. Previously small rolls of paper tied together to form a single one were placed, one of each of the Korean colors (white, black, blue, yellow, and red), which represented a full life; a yarn of wool, which predicted a long life without illness; a medallion that symbolized that the kid would get a position in the government, which was the best possible career at the time; a brush, which suggested that they would be a writer and a wise person; a bag of coins, which meant that there would be wealth in their life, and, finally, an item that was different according to the sex of the baby; a bow and arrows for the boys, which represented military courage and excellence, and a thimble, scissors or a cloth pincushion for the girls, which represented good manners and talent in the manual arts. The meaning of modern doljabi items is easier to decipher than traditional ones because they are based on modern occupations and take the form of objects closely related to those professions, such as a stethoscope for a doctor, balls for an athlete, gavel for a judge or a lawyer, a cell phone for those who will have a future associated with technology, or a microphone for those who will dedicate themselves to the world of entertainment.

In the past, Koreans highly appreciated the divination aspect of doljabi due to the prevalence of Korean shamanism, but in modern times most do not really believe that a doljabi object determines a baby’s future or bestows blessings. However, the doljabi continues to spread its popularity as one of the most fun and unique ways to celebrate a baby’s first birthday, both in South Korea and abroad. The fun part for parents is getting specific doljabi sets or kits that have items that represent careers or professions that they would like their baby to choose to guide them in their decision, there are no limits to creativity. Party guests can also actively participate in this entertaining celebration through raffles or games where they try to guess which item the baby will choose. During the party, guests who answer the question correctly will win a prize, and in case you’re unlucky, remember that to show gratitude to those who attend their baby’s doljanchi, most Koreans give a gift in return, or dablyepum (답례품) to the guests.

If you ever have the opportunity to be invited to a doljanchi, remember to dress for the occasion, preferably in a style somewhere between formal and informal, do not forget that it is a joyful event and not a funeral, so bright colors that convey vitality are the best choice. Keep in mind that the guests usually bring a gold ring or dolbanji (돌반지) as a gift, or a small gold rattle, since this metal symbolizes good luck and in the future, it can be sold and help pay for the baby’s education; but the most common is to give an envelope with cash, the amount of which will depend on how close you are to the family. If you happen to find yourself at a point in your life where you don’t know what you want to do, and you’re thinking that everything would be easier if your family had held you a doljabi, don’t despair and keep trying new activities and meeting new people who inspire you to be better and to believe in yourself, just remember that since you were born you are someone valuable and the world is already a better place because you are in it whatever your passion or your achievements are.

Written by: Laura Herrera

Reviewed by: Angie Salavarria

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