As in any country, a baby’s first birthday is a big deal in Korea. In the past, due to various reasons, such as famine and disease, many babies didn’t make it to their first birthday. So those that did got a huge party to celebrate.
I’m sure all would agree that a birthday is a joyous occasion and usually a lot of thought and effort goes into making it really memorable and special. As our family is a bicultural family, when it came to my son’s first birthday, we had to decide which parts of each other’s traditions we wanted to bring together. The first time I went to a Korean first birthday party, or a cheotdeol (첫돌), I expected to see balloons, cake and lots of children playing. I was surprised to find that it's actually very similar to a Korean wedding.
My favorite tradition and something we incorporated into our son's birthday was the first birthday grab, or doljabi (돌잡이). The first birthday grab is supposed to tell the babies' future, if you like. A tray of specially selected items is put in front of the baby and everyone waits in anticipation until the baby chooses an item. The item grabbed symbolizes the baby's future career or future life circumstances. Each item has a different meaning. Some represent jobs and some represent skills or circumstances. There's a traditional set of items, but these days anything goes, as people add toy golf clubs to represent a golf teacher or a pro golfer, or add a computer mouse to symbolize a Bill Gates type of scenario or maybe a professional video game player. There are no set rules for what you can use and the same item can also have different meanings for different families. The selection of items and meanings are special to each family.
For my son’s birthday, we used a selection of traditional items because with all the modern variations, there were way too many for him to choose. I’ve put together a list of some of the original items and their meanings, with a few of the most commonly used modern additions.
Korean money pouch – a person with lots of luck
Stethoscope – a person who will become a doctor
Gavel – a person who will become a lawyer
Bow and arrow – a person with a career in the military
Medal with seal – a person with a high position in the government
Brush – a person who will become a famous artist
Money (traditionally coins, but these days notes) – a person who will be rich
Colored scrolls – a person with a long and healthy life
Book – a famous scholar
Reals of thread / thimbles – a person with many talents
Medicine jar – a person who will become a doctor of East Asian medicine
Red and blue silk plat, used in a traditional Korean wedding – a person who will be a good husband / wife
Some common modern items were:
Soccer ball – a person who will become a football player
Computer mouse – a person who will be famous like Bill Gates
Airplane – a person with a career as a pilot
Microphone – a person who will be a singer / entertainer
Crown – A girl who will become Miss Korea
Piano – a person who will become a pianist
Golf club – a person who will become a pro golfer
For my son’s birthday, we bought a small selection of old style traditional items, as they had charm and tradition. Though people don’t hold their kids to what choice they make at their dol, traditional parents, and especially grandparents, look forward to it and hope for a good choice.
I wanted to make things a little bit fun. As a child of the 1990s, I grew up watching the cartoon "Pokemon," and it just so happens that one of my son’s favorite toys is a plastic Pokemon ball. I was convinced that if it was on the table, he would pick it over anything else, which would be quite amusing.
At his birthday party, my son’s first choice was the stethoscope and his grandfather seemed very happy with that. As is standard, the baby also gets a second choice, which becomes baby’s plan B. My son’s second choice was quite unexpected. He chose -- or tried to eat, more like -- the microphone I was holding to talk to the guests.
So my son is either going to become a lawyer or a singer. It was a proud mommy moment!