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Doljabi: Decoding the Traditions of a Korean First Birthday

First-year birthdays are a huge milestone, especially for first-time parents and their children. It represents 12 months of learning and development for the child and everyone involved in the baby’s life.

In Korea, a traditional meal is hosted and attended by family and friends as the baby turns one year old. This is called doljabi, a lavish feast where the child’s future is predicted.

What Is Doljabi?

What Is Doljabi

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Doljabi is part of the celebration of a Korean baby’s first birthday. The birthday itself is called dol or doljanchi, a ceremony intended to bless the baby with a prosperous and successful future.

During a dol, the baby wears the hanbok with a hat — a gulle or jobawi for girls and a hogeon or bokgeon for boys. One of the most anticipated highlights of a dol is the doljabi, the tradition of placing the baby on a table full of different objects and food.

Without any adult intervention, the child is encouraged to take one (or two) of the things in front. Each of these objects represents the child’s future.

The belief is that whatever the child picks will significantly impact their lifestyle, success, and career. Historically, the objects on the table included calligraphy brushes, money, food, and thread.

Today, more modern objects have found their way onto the table since the measure of success has changed over time. A modern spread may include a stethoscope, gavel, and even a golf ball.

After the child picks up an object or two, the celebration will continue with feasting, singing, and ensuring that the child is the highlight of the gathering. By the end of the dol, guests give the child gifts like gold rings, clothes, and money which are entrusted to the parents.

Before we dive into its symbolism, let’s take a step back and review this important event’s history.

Brief History of Doljabi

Brief History

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Though Korea today boasts universal and modern healthcare, the death rates for children in the 18th century were high. Sadly, many newborns passed away before they could reach their first birthdays. This is why the dol became a crucial cultural celebration in Korea. At the time, a child surviving its first year was a significant milestone.

A few centuries ago, babies often succumbed to starvation in disease. By the 1800s, the mortality rate was at its highest — every second child in the country died. This trend continued until the 1950s when the infant mortality rate was at 26%.

Because many children didn’t survive, the entire village would gather and celebrate with the parents and family of the child. They shared food and hoped that the baby would have a promising and prosperous future once it reached 12 months.

Even in the most humble households, throwing a dol was imperative so the family members could pray and bestow their blessings for the child’s longevity and prosperous future.

Doljabi Items and Meanings

Here are some of the common doljabi items and their meanings.

Dol Foods

Dol Foods

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No celebration is complete without food. During the child’s first birthday, the family members take the time to show their gratitude to Samshin, the three gods that the Koreans believe take care of the baby while growing up.

This is done by serving plain rice and stacks of rice cakes with different colors. The rice cakes symbolize a sacred and pure beginning, generosity, and harmonious living. Seaweed soup, or miyeok guk is also served to represent the hope that the child will honor the parents and remember their hardships and sacrifices. Lastly, fruits are served for prosperity.

Doljani Objects

Doljani Objects

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The objects that the Koreans place on the dol table always have meaning. Here are the traditional and modern things placed on the table that the child can grab.

#1. Calligraphy Brushes, Painting Brushes, or Pens

If the baby grabs any of these, the baby will be bright and become a scholar.

#2. Money

When the baby selects money from the table, it is believed that the child will be wealthy and free from financial burdens.

#3. A Coil of White Yarn

This is a must-have in every dol celebration. It represents the family’s wishes that the child will have a long and healthy life.

#4. Threads of Different Colors

Another crucial object in a dol, different-colored threads indicate the family’s wish that the child will have a harmonious and lasting marriage.

#5. Five Colorful Silk Pouches

Another traditional item for the dol table is five colorful silk pouches. These represent the family’s wish that the child will have a stress-free life.

#6. Rice

When the child chooses rice, it means that the baby will grow up with abundance and will be blessed with spirituality and material things.

#7. Bow and Arrow

If the baby chooses the bow and arrow, the child will have a military career.

#8. Five Sheets of Colored Paper

The five sheets of rolled colored paper come in different colors to symbolize different things.

• Yellow is a noble color in Korea and only the king was allowed to wear it.
• Blue represents the east, good fortune, and wood.
• Red symbolizes the south, passion, and fire.
• White stands for the west, truth, and metal.
• Black indicates the north, wisdom, and water.

#9. Medallion

If the little one selects a medallion, he or she will have a future in government or will become a high-ranking official.

#10. Pouch

If the baby chooses the pouch from all the other things on the table, the child’s future is bright because it will grow up with lots of luck and will be financially wealthy.

#11. Pin Cushion

Having a pincushion on the dol table attracts creativity and flexibility for the newborn.

#12. Microphone

One of the modern doljabi items, the microphone signifies that the child will grow up to be an entertainer.

#13. Stethoscope

Another modern object, a baby who grabs the stethoscope will grow up to become a doctor. A career in medicine can also be symbolized by a medicine pot. Koreans believe that babies who touch it will later save lives.

#14. Gavel

Grabbing the gavel means that the baby will become a lawyer or judge.

#15. Phone

A baby who chooses a phone from the table will work in technology. He or she will help people connect through technology and make the world a better place to live.

#16. Ball

Infants who prefer the ball will become athletes. They will work hard and exhibit extraordinary discipline as they pursue their goals.

Doljabi Gifts

Doljabi Gifts

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Family and friends who have been invited to the baby’s first birthday are expected to give the baby gifts. Usually, jewelry gifts of 22K to 25K pure gold are common. This represents the wish that the baby will enjoy prosperity and good health. Usually, gold gifts are given as rings. When the parents receive them, they put it on their child’s fingers.

To many, this may sound impractical and frivolous, but in Korean culture, it’s a straightforward and practical present. If needed, the gold rings can be sold for cash to help pay for the child’s needs.

Doljabi Outfit

Doljabi Outfit

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Celebrants are dressed in hanbok or traditional Korean clothing. Even the parents of the celebrant usually wear their hanbok.

Dol Parting or Return Gifts

The parents and family of the child are expected to give their guests a small token to show their gratitude for being part of their baby’s milestone. This is why the giving of return gifts called dablyepum is done. Typical return gifts are towels with zodiac embroidery, soap, and rice cakes.

Preparing for a Doljabi

Preparing

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As parents, you want your baby’s doljabi to be perfect which can be achieved through early preparation and smart planning. So, what do you need to prepare for a doljabi? Here’s a checklist you can refer to.

#1. Your baby’s first hanbok

This is when you purchase your baby’s first hanbok. Letting your child wear traditional clothing before the event is an excellent idea so you will know how comfortable your child will be. Some parents forego the jobawe or bokgeon because these headpieces can be uncomfortable when worn for hours.

Don’t forget to prepare your hanbok as well. Remember that parents are required to wear traditional clothing during the celebration.

#2. Invite Guests

Family and close friends expect to be invited to this party so be sure to extend an invitation to them. Most of the time, the family’s oldest members are given priority because their blessings for the child are of utmost importance.

#3. The Doljabi Table

This is the main highlight of the dol so make sure you have a table prepared with food. Most importantly, gather traditional and modern doljabi items to predict your child’s future.

A Few Parting Words

As of 2022, The infant mortality rate in Korea was at .002% — a far cry from the 1800s. Over the years, the traditional doljabi has endured as a celebration of the hope that new life will lead to a positive legacy.

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