The celebration of a baby’s first birthday in particular is widely practiced across the world, as infant and child mortality rates were much higher in previous eras. In the eastern Asian regions, this traditional celebration includes a ceremony where the objects are placed in front of the baby and good things are said about the baby’s future based on the grabbed object. In my native South Korea, the objects typically associated with the occasion are books, writing tools and money. Other objects – even microphones and calculators – can also be used in the celebration, though that depends on how traditional the practitioner wants the celebration to be.
The informant is my uncle, who recently celebrated the first birthday of his twin sons. He first learned of the tradition in childhood, then through from his mother and grandmother. As a celebration for his sons, the performance of this tradition was of a personal importance to him. I was unable to attend the celebration in person, but I was able to ask the informant about it during spring break.
According to the informant, he placed a pencil, a book, money and a ball of strings – traditionally included symbols/items – on the table, but he also placed modern picks: a computer mouse and a basketball. The traditional symbols refer to a future in education, academics, riches and healthy life, respectively. The informant said that his contemporary additions represented “technological savvy” and “athleticism”. In the end, both his children picked up the pencil and the informant wishfully said that he was “happy he shouldn’t have to worry about their [the twins’] grades”.
It can be observed that the practice of traditional celebrations sees variation based on the practitioner, as do works of folklore in general. Though it is entirely up to choice to follow tradition or not, the informant’s use of contemporary objects to update the objects to be grabbed by the baby show that celebrations can be altered to be contemporary yet not taking away from the traditional meaning of celebration.
To see the traditional Chinese version of this tradition, see “To Catch the First Year” in the Folklore Archives