While dol ostensibly is a festive party centered around the birthday child, it is larger than that…It is a tribute to the generations who came before me and survived enough birthdays of their own to bring this very moment into life.
For Korean parents, there are few events in their child’s life that take on greater significance than dol — a traditional celebration of the child’s first birthday.
Now when I say “first birthday,” that’s not to be confused with turning one. Strictly speaking, dol doesn’t commemorate the day a child turns one year of age since, in Korea, babies are considered “one” at birth and subsequently gain a year on every New Year’s Day. (Yes, as strange as it may sound, this means a baby born in December will be considered two years old in “Korean age” by the time she reaches the equivalent of two months in “Western age.”)
Semantics aside, dol does celebrate the child’s successful passage through the first 365 days of her life. While that might not seem significant today, it was both a feat and a blessing in Old World Korea when babies rarely made it past the first 100 days of life, much less a year. It was from that sense of marvel and gratitude that the tradition of dol was born.
Like most traditions, different variations and adaptations of dol have spawned over time and across space with passing generations and diaspora. But no matter the time or place, you’ll likely find at every dol three things — the hanbok, doljabi, and an abundance of food.
1. Wearing Hanbok
Hanbok (literally, “Korean wear”) is the traditional clothing of Koreans, dating back more than two millennia.
Hanbok is characterized by its vibrant colors and generallyconsists of a blouse and jacket or vest, loose fitting pants or skirt, and sometimes a headpiece for ceremonial occasions.
Hanbok gradually faded from daily use around the turn of the 20th century with the introduction of westerners and a “modernization” campaign under Japanese colonial rule. However, it is still customarily worn on special occasions such as weddings, New Year’s Day, and of course, dol.
2. Doljabi Fun
Doljabi is a lighthearted ritual where parents spread out several items in front of the birthday child, each symbolizing an aspirational trait or career path. Whatever the child grabs first is supposed to be a reflection of her future and temperament.
While parents often take liberties inserting their personal preferences onto the choices available for their child, the items customarily include: a gavel for a lawyer, stethoscope for a doctor, pen for a scholar, book for an academic, money for a businessperson, and a ball for an athlete. Doljabi is oftentimes the highlight of dol, as it lends itself to much cheering, laughs, exaggerated groans, and applause from family and friends wishing well for the child and her future.
Finally, you can’t have a proper dol without an excessive amount of food. Koreans have one primary love language, which is through food. In fact, a common Korean greeting — the equivalent of hello — literally translates to, “Have you eaten?” To feed someone is not only to tell them that you care but to actually show it. This is no less true at dol where the sheer volume of food is not only a sign of respect for your guests’ wellbeing but also a symbolic blessing on your child for a life of abundant nourishment and health.
Beyond the obvious amusement it provides, why is it important to celebrate dol? Why has it persisted as a tradition?
While dol ostensibly is a festive party centered around the birthday child, it is larger than that. To me, it is also a nod to my ancestral past and an acknowledgment of the interrelatedness and continuity of our lives. It is a tribute to the generations who came before me and survived enough birthdays of their own to bring this very moment into life.
Take my grandmother, as an example. At the youthful age of 24 she gambled with life and fled what is now North Korea during the midst of the Korean War. She left behind her parents, siblings, friends, and all that was familiar to her, to chase the abstract hope for a safer life for her children.
With a toddler in hand and a baby strapped on her back, she trekked more than a hundred miles on foot and, as luck permitted, aboard the tops of passing trains. She trudged by starving kinsfolk and abandoned babies, the dead and the dying, oftentimes nourished only by a sheer determination to survive another day.
When you fight that hard to live, you don’t bemoan — as so many of us now do — the idea of tallying another year. You celebrate it. You give thanks for every trip you make around the sun, because you know that your life doesn’t just begin and end with you.
Your life was inherited from your parents, it is sustenance for those around you, and the fountainhead of generations who will succeed you. But for my grandmother’s grit and good fortune, I wouldn’t be here today. And neither would my son.
That is why last Saturday I dressed him in a hanbok, cheered as he toddled to grasp his destiny, and lavished guests with copious food. And in doing so, I simultaneously celebrated our common past and his unique future as he embarked on his journey of continuing the cycle of life.
Ji Hae Kim is an attorney who lives and works in the Twin Cities. She spends much of her free time chasing after her two little boys who, like their mother, have a hard time sitting still.