No longer considered a marker of longevity, hwangap 환갑 is still an important celebration in Korean life.

Hwangap 환갑 is the traditional Korean celebration of the 60th birthday. The occasion marks the auspicious return to the year of one’s birth after five times around the 12-year lunar cycle. In pre-industrial Korea, hwangap was regarded as a sign of longevity due to a shorter life expectancy, and it marked the transition of an individual from an active role in the family and society to an advisory role, a retirement of sorts.

Hwangap is still a huge milestone for Koreans, but because of longer careers and life expectancies, many modern-day Koreans tend to skip a big hwangap celebration and focus on the 70th (chilsoon) or the 80th (palsoon) birthdays as the bigger celebrations.

The traditional Korean hwangap was a life cycle event and could even be considered a living ancestor worship ceremony. Such life cycle ceremonies were links between life and death, and tied ancestors and descendants together in a symbolic rite of continuity.

Age was traditionally calculated differently in South Korea. Everyone was considered one year old the day they are born, and they got a year older every lunar New Year’s Day. However, there were only two exceptions to this rule. On the first and the 60th birthdays, the aging took place on one’s birthday instead of the new year.

hwangap old and new

How Hwangap is Celebrated Today

While hwangap is fundamental to Korean culture, the celebration of this day is becoming more simplified and is not always the momentous occasion it once was. Today, though many people still enjoy having lavish feasts and parties for one’s 60th, others choose to celebrate with a more intimate group of friends and family at a restaurant or by taking an overseas trip with family.

Lavish feasts and parties are now sometimes postponed for 70th birthdays (chilsoon or 칠순) and 80th birthdays (palsoon or 팔순), but no Korean birthday party would be complete without seaweed soup (miyeok-guk 미역국).  This birthday tradition honors one’s mother who labored to give birth.

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Miyeok Guk (Beef Seaweed Soup)Lavish feasts and parties are now sometimes postponed for 70th birthdays (chilsoon or 칠순) and 80th birthdays (palsoon or 팔순), but no Korean birthday party would be complete without seaweed soup (miyeok-guk 미역국).  This birthday tradition honors one’s mother who labored to give birth.


The Old Tradition

There were seven elements to a hwangap that were essential to the traditional event:

  • Hwangap was conducted in the home since the home was the center of ritual activity in traditional, agrarian Korea.
  • Children jointly planned and financed this event for their parents.
  • The children, and then the younger relatives of the sexagenarian, bowed fully to the floor before the celebrant to show their respect. After this show of respect, they served rice wine to the celebrant and spouse. Each of the celebrant’s children, starting with sons (and their wives) in birth order from the oldest to the youngest, bowed and served wine. Men bowed only twice while women bowed four times. The younger siblings and younger cousins of the celebrant also bowed in similar sequence.
  • There was a prescribed table laden with special ceremonial foods like rice cakes, fruit and cookies stacked in six to twelve inch towers called go im, which represented the many achievements of the celebrant’s life.
  • At the table the sexagenarian and spouse would wear ceremonial white clothes to indicate a withdrawal from the working world into a more contemplative lifestyle. However, if the sexagenarian’s parents were still living, brightly colored clothing that mimic the clothing for the first birthday was worn. Wearing all white while one’s parents are still alive would be interpreted as a death wish because it is both the color of retirement and of mourning.
  • Official invitations were sent out by the children of the sexagenarian to extended family members and friends.
  • Gifts were presented by guests to the celebrant for this special occasion.
Even in the old days, Hwangap was a party to be enjoyed.
  • Music, singing and dancing were often part of the agenda. The program for the event varied but generally included: flower presentations; oral histories of the celebrant, his ancestors and descendants; wine serving; individual and group singing; poetry readings and speeches made by various members of the community about the celebrant, the celebrant’s family, and/or the event.