Dol or doljanchi is a Korean tradition that celebrates the first birthday of a baby. This ceremony blesses the child with a prosperous future and has taken on great significance in Korea. The birthday babies wear a hanbok and a traditional hat: a jobawi or gulle for baby girls and a bokgeon or hogeon for baby boys.
In the past, the death rates for children were high and many children died before their first birthday, so it was an important milestone for the baby and parents. The whole village used to celebrate a baby's first birthday, sharing food and wishing for long life and fortune for the baby.
The highlight of the dol is a ritual where the child is placed in front of a table of foods and objects such as string, brushes, ink and money. The child is then urged to pick up an object from the table. It is believed the one selected will foretell the child's future. For example, if the child picks up a brush or book, he/she is destined to be smart. If he/she picks up money he/she will be wealthy; If he/she picks up food that means he/she will not be hungry. If the child picks up the thread, it is believed he/she will live a long life. The types of objects placed on the table for the baby to choose has evolved over time, as a reflection of society's evolving perception of successful occupations. However, many parents remain more traditional in their selection of objects to place on the table. This is followed by feasting, singing and playing with the toddler. Most often, guests will present gifts of money, clothes, or gold rings to the parents for the child at this time.
At home family members give thanks to Samshin (three gods who are believed to take care of the baby's life while growing up) by serving plain rice, seaweed soup, and rice cakes. For the party, parents prepare a special 'Dol' table, where food is stacked high to symbolize a life of prosperity for the baby. The table is set mainly with a rice cake of pretty rainbow layers, seaweed soup, and fruits. Miyeok guk (seaweed soup) is served on every birthday after the first birthday to remind people of what their mother went through to bring them into the world.
The celebration is usually held in buffet restaurants or wedding halls. Parents prepare some prizes for guests and upon entering the party, everyone gets a piece of paper on which a number is written. During the party guests who correctly answer a question about the baby win a prize. The host of the party, or an entertainer, also calls out a number randomly, and the person who has that number receives a prize.
This tradition is special to me, as I have been fortunate enough to attend each of my three nephews’ Dol. As I’m based in LA and my nephews in NYC, any time I spend with them is special, but a Dol is quite a spectacular birthday celebration that I hope to experience when I have children.