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Dol for a Little Seoul: A Korean First Birthday Celebration

Birthdays, whether we like it or not, are a universally celebrated milestone.  Jewish culture commemorates with a bar/bat mitzvah, Mexican culture with a quinceañera.  Korean custom does not disappoint with the first birthday or doljanchi (dol).
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Dol celebrations stemmed from an unfortunate Korean past of high infant mortality rates, harsh climates and childhood disease.  After the age of 1, survival rates steeply increased…and the entire village rejoiced.  Reaching the 1st birthday became a joyous milestone where food was shared and many a blessing was imparted on the child for a long and prosperous life.

Our daughter’s dol, like many nowadays, was a modern take on a traditional celebration. I was more than excited that it was finally my turn to share in the storied tradition.  Having my daughter sit at the decorated birthday table (dol sang) just as I and everyone else in my family had decades before me brought an extra tear to an already emotional day.  Like many dol sangs, food was stacked high, flanked by dol towers representing wishes for future accomplishments.  Korean rice cakes (dduk) representing purity and long life also had a place at the table and was a parting gift to guests wrapped in tiny, brightly-colored silk Korean clutches.  Both white rice, signifying an abundance of food and fortune, and dried Korean dates (daechue) a symbol of an abundance of giving birth, adorned the table. (These symbols of children — daechue and chestnuts — are also thrown and caught in the bride’s skirt during Korean wedding ceremonies for the same reason.)

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As guest of honor, dol babies (toddlers?) wear a colorful (think bold bright colors) and ornate traditional Korean outfit (hanbok), complete with an adorable little hat.  My daughter is not, let’s say, a fan of headgear in the least.  I was worried the day would start with her kicking, screaming and refusing to have anything to do with the hanbok, but miracles of miracles, she obligingly wore the hanbok all afternoon and was paraded around like a Korean doll by beaming grandparents.

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Without a doubt, the highlight of a dol celebration is when the child is placed in front of various objects, all symbolizing various good fortunes for the future.  For example, typical dol items and their significance include:

  • Coins/money = wealth/entrepreneur
  • Book/pencil = scholar
  • Thread = long life
  • Stethescope = doctor
  • Microphone= entertainer/musician
  • Paintbrush/crayon = artist
  • Ball = athlete
  • Rice = never go hungry 
  • Wood spoon = chef

Our daughter zeroed in on the crisp $20 bill and then as an afterthought, picked up the crayon. Can’t complain!

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