While birthday cake is fast becoming popular at the office and among circles of friends (typically the ladies), Koreans still hold fast to the tradition of eating miyeokguk, seaweed soup, on their birthday. In fact, this tradition is so deeply-rooted that it is even common to greet a friend on his/her birthday by asking “Have you eaten miyeokguk?” In the olden days, pregnant women would eat miyeokguk for about a month prior to giving birth; this tradition is still prevalent today, but not as widespread as it once was. Seaweed is high in iodine and calcium, which are thought to be beneficial for uterine contraction and milk production. Eating miyeokguk on birthdays is seen as a way to remind children not to forget the pain of childbirth and to appreciate the care given to them by their mother.
In many ways, the birthday culture of Korea has become similar to that of the West. Birthday cards and gifts are common and cakes are prepared with candles corresponding to the person’s age. One main difference though is that in many cases, people celebrate their birthdays according to the lunar calendar (as opposed to the solar calendar). Consequently, the actual date changes every year. Some people celebrate their birthday according to both the solar calendar and the lunar calendar, celebrating their ‘solar birthday’ with friends and their ‘lunar birthday’ with family.
Milestone birthdays like dol (a child's first birthday), hwangap (60th birthday), and chilsun (70th birthday) are usually celebrated with a feast or large party.
Dol is celebrated a year after a child’s birth. In the past, when food was scarce and infant mortality was high, it was considered a blessing and a true sign of fortune that a child survived to its first birthday. In celebration, rice cakes, fruit, and food were prepared and shared with the people of the village in appreciation of the care and blessing of Granny Samsin, the goddess that (according to folk religion) took care of a child’s birth, life, and health.
This custom has been handed down for generations, making doljanchi – literally meaning ‘feast to celebrate the first birthday’ – an important event in Korea. The event is usually held in a hotel banquet room or restaurant. The highlight of this event is a ritual called doljabi, in which the child is placed in front of a table holding rice, money, a book, and string and prompted to pick an object. People then make predictions about the child’s talents and future based on the object he/she grabs.
Food is shared with family members, relatives, and neighbors with the belief that the more is shared, the more blessings will be returned. The menu for dol parties may vary, but one staple found at all dol parties is baekseolgi rice cake made of rice flour dough. Some households also make special rice cakes for their son/daughter until he/she grows to be 10 years of age since the red color of the flour is believed to ward off evil spirits and keep the child safe.
It is customary to take elaborate pictures of the child on his/her first birthday. In contrast to the simple portrait shot taken in the past, most children have their own mini photo shoot, wearing different clothes in different settings. Photos are typically taken in a professional photo studio and kept in an album or ornate picture frame.
Only a few decades ago, the average Korean life expectancy was only around 50 or 60. So when someone turned hwangap, or sixty years of age, a big feast was held in the village in the person's honor.
With advances in medical science and a higher standard of living, the average Korean life expectancy is now 80 or more. Some people even say that ‘sixty is young and ninety is the new hwangap.’ Due to such changes, it has become less common to see people celebrating their sixtieth birthdays. Unlike big feasts to celebrate longevity in the past, it is more common for people turning sixty to go on a trip overseas, take silver wedding photos, or celebrate the occasion in a different way.
While hwangap celebrations are becoming more simple, feasts to celebrate chilsun (seventieth birthday/sixty-ninth ‘man’** birthday) or palsun (eightieth birthday/seventy-nine ‘man’ birthday) have become more important and more elaborate. Just as in the traditional sixtieth birthday party, families gather in a big restaurant, wear hanbok, and celebrate the occasion with a table piled high with fruit, rice cakes, and traditional cookies. Recently, more and more people are celebrating their milestone birthdays in alternative ways, donating money to those in need or contributing to local scholarship programs.
**Reference: In Korea, a child is considered to be one year old as soon as he/she is born. The child then turns two years old the following year. When referring to international age, in which a child is one year old only after a full year has passed since his or her birth, the word ‘man’ is used (‘man’ meaning ‘full’).