Korean Birthday Customs
Koreans believe that one of the main roles in life is to produce children, particularly boys (although girls are more welcome now than in the past), for their ancestors. Besides the filial responsibility toward those who have passed on, children also serve as a kind of familial pension plan for parents as children (traditionally the eldest son) are expected to care for their elderly parents both financially and physically. To this end, a woman is expected to produce a child within the first couple of years of marriage (although a small but growing number of young Koreans are opting to delay having children or to not have any at all). Young couples will invest enormous amounts of time and energy in fertility treatments if they don’t conceive within the expected time frame. Sons are still preferred and female fetuses are still often aborted, although it is illegal for doctors to tell parents the gender of their unborn child. A child is considered to be one year old when born and will turn two on the next Lunar New Year.
ONE-HUNDRED-DAY-CELEBRATION: Other than close maternal relatives, no one visit the new mom for at least 21 days after the baby’s birth. The first 100 days of a child’s life are considered the most fragile, but after that time, the child can be taken outdoors and introduced to neighbors, friends and relatives. Traditionally, Koreans don’t give gifts at the baby’s birth, but it does happen and no one will be offended if you do give gifts. If you are invited to the 100-day celebration, you can bring a gift of clothes or if one of the parents is a very close friend or someone with whom you have daily contact, a silver chopstick/spoon set is appropriate.
FIRST BIRTHDAY (dol or doljanchi - 돌 or 돌잔치): For her/his first birthday, a child is dressed in traditional Korean clothes. A boy will wear the hood that was the custom for unmarried young men, while girls wear make-up. A key part of the celebration activities is the toljabee ceremony where the child is seated before a table on which various foods (rice, rice cakes, jujube, etc.) and objects (calligraphy set, pencil, knife, book, money, thread, needle, scissors, ruler or bow and arrow) have been placed. He/she is then encouraged to pick one or two of these. According to tradition, the first or second choice foretells the infant's future.
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
Note: Interpretations can vary from one region to the other.
SIXTIETH BIRTHDAY: This has traditionally been an extremely important birthday and is celebrated in grand style. According to the Lunar Calendar, there are 60 names for years and once you hit 60, the calendar goes back to your birth year and the cycle starts over. In the past, few people lived to 60. However, in the last 25 years of so, the Korean life span has greatly improved and the average life extends into the 70’s and early 80’s. The 60th birthday celebration is known as 'Hwan gap'.
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