Birthdays are a special occasion for everyone across the globe. It’s common for people worldwide to celebrate another year of opportunities and open doors. Yet how we celebrate our red-letter days varies significantly from one culture to another.
Traditional birthday celebrations are an exciting part of Korean culture. While all ages are equally precious and ordinarily celebrated in the country, some milestones hold more cultural and social cachet than others. Koreans commemorate these significant milestones with grand feasts and special observances. So with that said, let us explore some unique Korean birthday customs and traditions and see how they celebrate a person’s milestone birthdays.
Baek-il (백일) – 100th Day Celebration
Before the advent of modern medicine and medical technology, the infant mortality rate in Korea was pretty high. If babies were alive and healthy in their first 100 days, it was cause for a special celebration. It’s also worth noting that if the baby happened to be sick on the 100th day, families skipped the Baek-il festivities since they believed it could bring bad luck.
Even when infant mortality has dropped significantly, this tradition is still widely observed in modern Korea. After all, it is a cause of celebration still! The family throws a party with family members and friends. Some popularly served dishes include miyeok-guk (미역국) or seaweed soup and baekseolgi (백설기) or rice cakes. Koreans will share the rice cakes with as many friends, relatives, and neighbors as possible as they believe their baby will live a long and healthy life if they share the rice cakes with 100 people.
Doljanchi (돌잔치) – 1st Birthday Celebration
Dojanchi is a special occasion to celebrate a baby’s first birthday — although Dol (둘) means ‘two’ since the babies are considered two years old in Korea, being one year old the day they were born. It’s regarded as a milestone event, so parents usually dress themselves and the baby to the nines in traditional Korean clothes, hanbok, and take formal family pictures at a professional studio to commemorate the day.
The celebration’s highlight is a ceremony called Doljabi (돌잡이), which is akin to fortune-telling. The baby sits in front of a table and “chooses” from various items and objects arrayed in front of them, representing aspects of their future profession or lifestyle. Here are some examples of common doljabi items and their meanings:
- Book – scholar or writer
- Money – prosperity and wealth
- Yarn/thread – longevity
- Stethoscope – profession as a doctor
- Gavel – profession as a lawyer or judge
- Microphone – profession as an entertainer
… although there are many other items a family can choose to use. While not every family believes in it, it is something that can be used to create a light-hearted atmosphere and laugh about as parents wish the best for their baby’s future.
Hwangab(환갑) – 60th Birthday Celebration
The gist behind the Hwangab is similar to the idea behind Baek-il. Life expectancy was low in pre-industrial Korea, and reaching one’s 60th year was an astonishing feat. So people held lavish parties to celebrate this extraordinary milestone. Year 60 also has a symbolic significance since it marks the completion of the lunar calendar and denotes the celebrant’s return to their birth year — it represents them restarting the life cycle over again.
Nowadays, 60 years old is considered a relatively low bar in longevity, so 60th birthday celebrations may be more relaxed and low-profile among Koreans. They may hold a small and quiet celebration with family in the home or a restaurant and catch up over a meal instead.
Chilsun (칠순) and Palsun (팔순) – 70th & 80th Birthday Celebrations
As Hwangab celebrations get less prominent with higher life expectancies and longer careers, many modern-day Koreans celebrate Chilsun and Palsun more lavishly. Family members partake in ceremonial activities, and they usually dress up in traditional hanbok and have family photos taken to memorialize the special day.
In conservative family settings, one might still observe traditions such as the eldest son delivering ceremonial dishes and wine to his father and the guests bowing to the celebrant to show honour and respect. Generally, Chilsun and Palsun celebrations serve massive ceremonial feasts with rice cakes, fresh fruit, various meats, and gifts of wine. It is truly a celebration of a fulfilled life, as families take the chance to honour and celebrate their elders, cherishing all the time they have with their parents and grandparents.
Koreans have a unique way of celebrating birthdays that honours their history and culture while making their loved ones feel special. Learning these traditions can help you make a good impression when greeting a Korean friend or visiting Korea.
Did you know there are different ways to say happy birthday in Korean? You might say saeng-il chu-ka-ham-ni-da (생일 축하합니다) to a formal acquaintance or saeng-il-chuk-ha-hae (생일 축하해) to your casual and informal friends — there are many more ways depending on the celebrant’s status and relationship to you! Sounds confusing? Enrolling in a Korean language course in Singaporewill help you get the hang of the Korean language so you can get the best out of the culture.