Nationality: South Korean
Residence: Chicago, Illinois
Date of Performance/Collection: 05/01/2021
Primary Language: Korean
Other Language(s): English
The Dol (돌) is the celebration of an infant’s first birthday in South Korea. Childbirth and its complications in an impoverished country without advances in medicine and temperamental weather patterns meant that many children did not survive long past birth. Many children were kept in-doors as a means of protection and as a necessity for survival. Milestones for a child’s survival are celebrated on the 100th Day (백일) and then a large celebration is held on the first birthday where the wider family gathers for the occasion as the belief goes that once a child survives until its first year, the next hundred will be guaranteed. The Dol is characterized by a feast of traditional foods and also the an activity at the end called Dol-jabi (돌잡이) where a child is placed in front of multiple items. Bills of money, golf-balls, pieces of string, microphones, all sorts of objects are placed in front of the child and whichever object the child reaches for first will determine their success in that field. Reaching out to the string guarantees their long life, the microphone meaning that they will become a talented entertainer, a golf-ball for a pro golfer, money for being good with money, and etc.
The informant is my father who remembers me and my brother’s 1st Birthdays, 100th Day, and many other occasions involving the extended family. As Korea was still a developing country during his childhood and farther back, the reasons for celebrating a child’s survival is by no means a small matter. While the 100 Day celebrations have been phased out because of the advances in medicine, the first birthday is still widely celebrated. Of course, more modern items have been added to the myriad of objects placed in front of the child in the dol-jabi activity as the years go on.
My nephew had just celebrated his 1st Birthday on the 1st of May and I asked on the specifics of what the event pertained to and both of my parents explained what they did for me and my brother’s, which I have seen pictures of but have no recollection of.
It’s been stated multiple times that many Korean traditions stem from its impoverishment and I think no other element reflects that fact better than the celebration of a child’s survival past birth. The homeopathic magic comes into play to determine what the child’s preferences will be in the future as well, a determinant little “game” that I’ve also seen in other country’s. I find this story a lot more relevant these days because of the Covid pandemic and the world’s inability to contain the situation during 2020 that makes these life celebrations relevant again, especially when I hear about so many people trying to not have kids as their outlook on the world’s future becomes dimmer and dimmer. Korea in particular has had an issue about declining birth rates and my cousin and her son gave me some first had examples of the Korean government stepping in to promote childbirth and giving her family a large amount of federal money because she had given birth, giving credence to “government sponsored culture vs. tradition” going on. While I have heard some humorous conspiracy theories about Japan promoting marriage and procreation through positive portrayals of romance in their multi-media, I have not heard the same in the Korean context.
For a Chinese equivalent, see the Zhuazhou celebration:
The Tradition of Zhuazhou, 15 Feb. 2011, www.chinadaily.com.cn/life/2011-02/15/content_12016991.htm.