A Baby’s First Birthday: Korean Style vs. American Style

Celebrating the first birthday of a child is a joyous occasion in any culture and when it came time for us to celebrate we had to decide which parts of each of our cultures we wanted to bring together for the big day.

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Ultimately, we had two small get-togethers, one with my foreign friends and one with my husband’s Korean friends. This was done just out of ease and lack of space for both groups in our home. While some families in Korea opt for the larger halls for birthdays in which families and friends gather to watch as the child is paraded around a room, a video of the first year feats will likely play and a buffet meal is available to eat, many people are opting for small get-togethers these days, much cheaper, and in my opinion, more fun for the child.

My First Experience at a Doljanchi (돌잔치):

The first time I went to a Korean friend’s child’s first birthday bash, I expected to see balloons, lots of children playing and a cake, possibly mashed between tiny fingers, and other fun toys and things. I was surprised to find that the event was much like Korean weddings. Set in a hall, there was no place for the child to play let alone other children to play with. Adults sat around tables eating their buffet grub while a video of the baby from one month to twelve months played. The child was carried from table to table, clearly unhappily as he just wanted down to walk or stumble or to do whatever. Eventually he was taken to the front to choose an item from the table to foretell his future and of course lots of photos were snapped. It all seemed contrived and the least amount of fun a kid could have on his special day though this was before I understood the importance of the ceremony. At the end, I walked away with a gift for being the only foreigner in the room and a party favor while the child had no gifts to speak of. Of course my expectations came from my western roots so this style of birthday wasn’t all that appealing to me.

Time For Our Own First Birthday Bash:

Baby's First BirthdayWhen it came time for us, I was adamantly against the “lets invite everyone we know to a hall for our baby’s first birthday” idea though I did want to learn more about the festivities that are a part of the Korean birthday festivities. I wanted to bring together some close friends, likely those with children or those that wanted to sit on the floor and play with our child, open gifts, let her have her first cake with icing and told my husband to decide which Korean traditions he wanted to have so that both sides were portrayed as long as she could enjoy herself above all else.

The Traditional Korean Birthday:

The first birthday is called a “dol” (돌) or “doljanchi” (돌잔치) in Korean. This celebration was extremely important in the past as many November On The Go: Baby in a Hanboknewborns never made it to the first birthday due to lack of medicinal knowledge and childhood disease so when a child made it through the first year, a huge celebration would take place. The child would be dressed up in his/her first Hanbok. Parents would pray to two Korean gods: Sanshin (the mountain god) and Samshin (the birth goddess) to start off the dol rite. Bowls of rice, seaweed soup (miyeok-guk 미역국) and water along with rice cakes would be placed on a table and the mother or grandmother, only a familial woman in the family, would begin a prayer by bringing her hands together and rubbing her palms. The mountain god would be asked to give the child longevity while the birth goddess was thanked for the birth. While this part of the ceremony is often foregone these days, I find it important to know in order to understand the event a bit better and its importance to the Korean culture.

The main event of the first birthday is the doljabi (돌자비) ceremony. A variety of objects are put on a table or tray in front of the child and whatever the child chooses foretells his or her future. The objects have evolved over time so in the list below you can see some traditional objects and what are clearly newer objects added to the table.

Baby's First BirthdayItems for the doljabi may include:

  • pencil/book (smarts)
  • food (won’t go hungry)
  • money (wealth)
  • thread (longevity)
  • needle (talent in the hands)
  • scissors (talent in the hands)
  • ruler (talent in the hands)
  • bow and arrow (military career)
  • microphone (entertainer)
  • golf club/balls (athlete)
  • computer mouse (tech. adept)

For the Korean party, two of my husband’s friends also have babies and all three of them were born within two weeks of each other so we decided to have a get together with the three families to celebrate the babies and let them play. Our daughter chose a computer mouse off the doljabi table and my husband seemed displeased though he laughed loudly. I think he pictured a gamer or someone obsessed with the computer while I had pictured Steve Jobs and other tech savvy people. I was the only one to bring a gift for each babe, but again I’m the only foreigner in the bunch and I just couldn’t think of attending a birthday party without bringing a gift. The children all chose their items and played for hours while the parents ate and enjoyed some drinks.

The Traditional American Birthday:

baby and pictures in the shape of a oneWhile many people are going big or going home these days with their children’s birthday parties, I wanted to keep it simple and to the point. When I pictured a birthday party, I saw a cake and it smashed between some tiny fingers and rubbed all over cheeks, presents to open, an exciting rendition of the song “Happy Birthday” and food for all. No theme necessary for a one year old was my motto. At some point in the future, she will surely let me know what theme she wants and then we’ll go with themes because I do love a good theme party after all. I chose yellow and white as the colors for some streamers and taped some photos of the babe throughout her first year in the shape of a one on the wall and the decorations were complete. She loved that “one” of pictures, too.

Baby's first birthday in KoreaShe had her first cake with icing and ate every little bit and when it came time to sing to her, the first few lines of the already quite short “Happy Birthday” stunned her into silence. Though once she realized we were all singing to her, she start bouncing and threw her arms into the air as if she were the maestro leading the choir. When we stopped singing, she was still waving her arms in the air like she just didn’t care. The opening of the presents also worked out really well. Once she realized that everyone would applaud for her when she tore through a box or some paper and retrieved what was inside, she was all about putting on a show. While she was the only baby there, as I am the only foreigner in my group of western friends that has had a baby so far, everyone sat on the floor to play with her and I’m pretty sure she had a wonderful time and so did the crew in attendance.

In the end, we celebrated in both American and Korean fashion and each party, though quite different, was fun for the birthday girl and brought together supportive and fun friends.

Have you celebrated a multicultural birthday party? What different parts of each culture did you bring together for the big day?

A Baby's First Birthday: Korean Style vs. American Style: How to perform a doljanchi, a traditional Korean ceremony on a child's first birthday in Korea and how to compromise the events with the American style birthday party.

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