Tag Archives: birthday ritual

Birthday Bite (Mordida)


So in like Latin American culture in general, I’m personally Mexican, but we have this thing and you basically sing a person happy birthday on their birthday into a cake. And, it’s called mordida which means bite. So you basically like yeah its mordida, which is bite in Spanish, its m-o-r-d-i-d-a and the whole thing it’s like kinda supposed to be good luck. Yeah, you just kind of shove their face into the cake, and they’re supposed to take a bite of the cake before everyone else, but like with their face. And, the whole point should be like a little bite, but people go a little crazy sometimes. 


Both of A’s parents are Mexican, and she grew up in Texas near the Mexican-American border in a strong Latin American community. She is currently 21 years old and attends USC.

Analysis: The word mordida, which A describes to mean a bite, is also more widely used to refer to a bribe when not in the context of the birthday tradition. It’s also traditional in Mexico to sing the song Las Mañanitas rather than happy birthday during the mordida. Luck associated with the start of a year or new beginnings at a birthday is also a theme in many cultures. Celebrating the year or new age of the birthday boy or girl sets a tone for the next 365 days. In Van Genup’s book Rites of Passage, he explains how rituals are often practical jokes and that in order to change identity (to move from one age to the next), there must be a ritual. Here it is interesting that after attending different birthday parties and their own every year the victim of the practical joke knows what is going to happen, but still allows it anyway. Participating in good humor or being able to “take the joke” is perhaps a sign of maturity. This is also an example of ritual inversion in which the ritual is the opposite of the normal rules of social engagement. Normally, shoving someone’s face into a cake would be rude, but in the Mordida it would almost be rude not to. 

Practical Joke: Putting Butter on Your Nose

Main Piece: 

“So, the other thing that is family folklore that my dad probably did to you was- he said it was a French-Canadian custom to try and catch the birthday person… if it’s your birthday, he’s going to try and catch you and put butter on your nose. Which is really disgusting. And sometimes it would be- we got smarter, and so we would hide the butter -and so he would do peanut butter. Which in some ways is worse, because it’s really hard to get peanut butter off of anything. You smell like peanut butter all day. So, thanks Dad. ”


My informant said that this practical joke was a tradition on her father’s side of the family. Her father apparently went through the same thing, as did all the kids in his family. On their birthdays, someone would catch them and put butter on their nose. My informant casts some doubt on whether or not this was actually a French-Canadian custom rather than something someone on her father’s side made up for fun, but that was what she was told. 


My informant suggests that this practical joke could be fakelore- something that someone on her father’s side came up that they said was a French-Canadian custom with that has since been proliferated. However, I did find another source that mentions this as a Canadian custom: a children’s book on birthday customs. See Powell, Jillian. “A Birthday.” United States: Smart Apple Media, 2007. 1-30. Though a less serious occasion, this seems similar in some ways to Irish practical jokes at wakes or family practical jokes at weddings- the focus is on the fun of the joke, not the feelings of the person for whom the event is for. All of these are times of liminality, and the practical jokes can serve as a way to cope with that.

Celebration of Survival- Infant Edition

Main Performance:

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.

My Thoughts:

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.

“Thôi nôi”: Vietnamese 1st Birthday Celebration

Main Piece:

A: It’s like a birthday. Your friends, family [are invited], cook food, give you something like– like baby clothes, toys… but it’s different like, I have to do a tray. I put on scissors… hammer… mirror… cái này là gì– chỉ, everything like on the tray. Then let the baby pick. The first thing the baby picks up, we think, “Oh, in the future, she will do thợ may, thợ cắt tóc, một cái người designer, hay là bác xĩ, này kia đó. 

  • “ It’s like a birthday. Your friends, family [are invited], cook food, give you something like– like baby clothes, toys… but it’s different like, I have to do a tray. I put on scissors… hammer… mirror… what is this– just, everything like on the tray. Then let the baby pick. The first thing the baby picks up, we think, “Oh, in the future, she will be a seamstress, a hairdresser, a designer, or a doctor, this and that.

Me: So what kinds of things are on the tray? You said scissors, thread…

A: Everything you can think of…. But, don’t put anything like– not lucky. 

Me: Did you do this celebration for anyone?

A: You. 

(Dad interjects: You did?

A: Yeah!

D: What did she pick?

A: Nó bóc cái gương với là cái micro. Chac là [our son] không có làm.

  • “She picked up the mirror and a microphone. I don’t think we did one for [our son].”

D: That’s why he’s not going anywhere [we all laugh])


My mother is the one telling me this story. This is a traditional way of celebrating the baby’s first birthday in Vietnam. Thus my mother, who was born and raised in Vietnam until immigrating to the United States in the 1990s, became familiar with this practice while she was there. She likes this celebration because of the fun of predicting what the baby’s future career will be, however, she does not fully believe in it. She explains to me that when she was younger, before she had me, she believed that these predictions would come true, but now, it is simply a fun activity. 


This is a transcript of our live conversation. We were in the process of eating dinner when I asked my mom if birthdays are celebrated in Vietnam. She responded no. Instead, certain milestones of a baby’s life are celebrated. She explains the baby’s 1st birthday after explaining how guarded the baby’s first month of life is.


I had known other cultures in Asia had this celebration of a baby’s first large milestone, such as Korea’s 100-day birthday, where they practice homeopathic magic to predict the baby’s future career, but I did not know that there was something similar in Vietnamese culture. To further explain how this is homeopathic magic, the act of the baby choosing symbols of a career mimics the career the child will have in the future. This is the first time I learned about this celebration. After my parents’ generation immigrated to the United States, I was never old enough to recognize if my cousins’ first birthdays were celebrated in this traditional Vietnamese practice. When one of my cousins had children, at that point, our family celebrated birthdays in the American way, as my mother explained that birthdays aren’t celebrated in Vietnamese culture aside from a baby’s first milestones. Such is a common occurrence in folk practices pertaining to the life cycle, where a baby’s life is more unpredictable in the beginning stages, and thus is celebrated when they pass markers that indicate better chances of survival. Though my mother said she doesn’t believe in the prediction, it is interesting that you could make a case that my selection was pretty accurate (I am a theatre major). 

Birthday Traditions in Elementary School

Main Piece:

At the informant’s elementary school, there were very intricate birthday traditions. When there was a birthday in the class they would go outside and stand in a large circle. The birthday child would stand in the middle holding a globe. Then all the kids would sing “The earth goes around the sun, tra-la-la. The earth goes around the sun. Around and around and around and the earth goes around the sun” 

Then the teacher would say “and then [birthday child’s name] turned 2!” and a friend of the birthday child would hold a picture of the birthday child when they were two and walk around the entire circle showing all the classmates. The song would then start over and the pattern would continue with 3, 4, 5 and so on until the class reached the age of the birthday child.


This tradition happened at a private, Montessori school where the informant attended. The school was located in the southern United States so the weather was almost always nice enough to do this tradition outside.


This tradition was explained to me when the informant was discussing the importance of traditions at their schools throughout their childhood.


This tradition captures a lot of elements that are important to birth, growing up, and continuing on with one’s life. There is the emphasis on the globe and the sun, to explain to the children that the years pass with each orbit of the sun. Then the photos of the child at each age allow for the children to get to realize what their classmates looked like before they knew each other. This shows the physical changes each child has gone through as they grow up. All these elements mesh into a creative demonstration to show the importance of being one year older that will make an impact on these children.