Doljanchi 돌잔치 is the first birthday celebration for a Korean child. Dol 돌 means birthday and janchi 잔치 means banquet or feast, so technically doljanchi means birthday party.
Though there’s no need to worry that a doljanchi is anything other than a first birthday party, you will sometimes see this event called “cheot” dol, 첫돌, or “first” birthday.
For the doljanchi, parents celebrate by having a party with many traditional foods and rituals. Although plenty of people celebrate with a small home party, there is a cottage industry both in Korean and the US to make these celebrations unforgettable occasion that rival weddings in cost, scale and grandeur.
History of Doljanchi
The tradition of the Korean doljanchi has its roots in the 18th century. Before Korea became a developed country with modern universal healthcare, infants often fell victim to disease and starvation. In 1800, every second child in South Korea died, and even in the 1950s the infant mortality rate was an alarming 26%. Therefore the completion of an infant’s first year was a major milestone to be celebrated even in the most humble households. By throwing a big party, families wished the child good health and longevity.
These days, Korea is a wealthy country where the infant mortality rate is down to .3%, about half that of the US. However, the birthrate in Korea is the lowest in the world, and parents are still going all out for their baby’s first birthday celebration, sometimes booking hotel banquet halls as soon as a child is born.
Sang means table, and dolsang is a key component of the doljanchi. There is significant meaning to each item that is placed on the table and the tradition is intended to wish the best life for the child.
In the States, there are many places where you can rent an entire dolsang setup. You can inquire at your local upscale Korean restaurant or order online from a site like Etsy. Check carefully for reviews and pictures from satisfied customers.
Some individual items for the dolsang are:
- A Round Table: A small round portable table symbolizes wishes for the child to grow up without hardship. This table can be placed on or near the main table and can hold either the doljabi ceremony items or any of the other items set out for the celebration.
- Coils of White Yarn: These mounds of thread or yarn symbolize a long and healthy life for the baby.
- Fruit: Traditionally very expensive in Korea, plates of fruit are piled high on the table to represent prosperity.
- Tteok 떡 (Ricecakes): There should be several different kinds of tteok on the dolsang: 1) White rice cake called baeksulgi 백설기 representing the pure sacred start of life. 2) A pile of 5 colored rice cake called osaek songpyeon 오색송편. The five colors represent harmony with one’s surroundings and also symbolizes a wish that the baby will grow to get along with all different kinds of people and surroundings. This delicious assortment consists of hollow and filled tteok. The hollow ones wish that the baby embraces others with generosity and the filled ones wish that the baby becomes full of knowledge and wisdom. 3) Another important offering of tteok is red soosoo paht tteok 수수팥떡, which wards off evil from entering the baby’s life.
- 5 Colorful Silk Pouches: Represents a vibrant life.
- Dates: Piles of dates symbolize future children and a happy life for the entire family.
- Minari Wrapped in Threads: A lesser known tradition for the dolsang is a vegetable recently made famous in Isaac Chung’s powerful film, Minari. Minari is a robust perennial vegetable that signifies vitality. When minari can’t be found, watercress or parsley can be substituted.
- Red and Blue Threads: Represent a wish for a harmonious marriage for the child.
- Flowers: Many people decorate the table with flowers, but traditionally not with real flowers since it was considered inauspicious to celebrate the start of a life by ending the life of another.
PRO TIP: Although many people like to include colorful towers of rice cakes and dried fruit in decorating their dolsang, the towers, or go im, represent a lifetime of achievements and are thus more appropriate for a Hwangap, or Korean 60th birthday celebration.
Doljabi! What will the baby pick?
The highlight of the doljanchi is the doljabi, 돌잡이. The doljabi is a fortune telling game where the parents lay out several symbolic items such as books, money and threads. Whichever item the baby picks first predicts what type of person the baby will be when they grow up!
Traditional Doljabi Items:
- Pencil or Brush: The baby will be a scholar.
- Money: The baby will be wealthy.
- Rice: The baby will have a life of plenty.
- Thread: The baby will live a long life.
- Bow and Arrow: The baby will have a military career.
Modern Doljabi Items:
- Microphone: The baby will be an entertainer.
- Stethoscope: The baby will be a doctor.
- Gavel: The baby will be a lawyer or judge.
- Computer Mouse: The baby will be a software engineer.
- Golf Ball / Baseball: The baby will be an athlete.
Jewelry gifts of pure gold (22-24K) were once the most common gifts given to babies on their first birthday to wish them both good health and prosperity.
Upon receiving the gold baby rings from the guests, the parents put them on the fingers of the baby. Though this tradition may seem frivolous, it was actually a very practical gift as it was understood that, if necessary, gold rings could later be sold and turned into cash to pay for the baby’s education.
The traditional weight of gold in Korea is measured by units called don (3.75 grams), and baby gifts were so common that they were sold by simply by weight. Tiny rings measured 1 don or 1/2 don, bracelets measured 2-3 don, etc.
In the old days, a gold ring cost about $50-$100, depending on the price of gold. These days, the price of gold has increased quite a bit, making this tradition less common. One place you can you get traditional 24K gold jewelry outside of Korea is Etsy, where a 1/2 don ring currently costs $175, and a 1 don ring costs about $320. 1 don bracelet is also a lovely gift. Most people, however, opt for other more readily available gifts like clothing, toys, or plain old cash.
The baby and sometimes even the parents wear hanbok, the traditional Korean clothing.
Traditional Korean Boy Hanboks are available these days on Etsy and other online sites.
Traditional Korean Girl Hanboks are available these days on Etsy and other online sites.
Professional photographers are often hired to capture this important celebration. It’s tricky to capture a smile on a one year old child who is wearing uncomfortable clothes and experiencing sensory overload, so it helps to hire a photographer who specializes in babies and young children.
Lately people have become more savvy and practical and have invented a way to get that perfect dol photo without hiring a professional. Oh Happy Day Events will photoshop your baby’s face into a perfect hanbok photo!
Parties, decorations, and ceremonies are now adapted to personal tastes and budgets, and there are many wonderful ways to incorporate some or all the beautiful elements of a traditional celebration.
In addition to renting and purchasing items for a doljanchi, many of the traditional dol decorations and foods can be improvised with items you already have at home.
However one chooses to celebrate, doljanchi is a very important milestone in a Korean child’s life and is celebrated as such in all corners of the world.
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