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.