Why Do Koreans Celebrate a Baby’s First Birthday?

Doljanchi is something that has been held onto Korean history since its creation from the 18th century. 18th century Korea would bring us back to the Joseon dynasty, a time when Korea was ruled over by an emperor rather than a president. Society in the Joseon dynasty was built upon a class system. There were four classes, the yangban nobility, the “middle class” chungin, sangmin, or the commoners and the cheonmin, the outcasts at the very bottom. Society was ruled by the yangban, who constituted 10% of the population and had several privileges. There was even a lowest tier designated for slaves.

The people lived under a patriarchal society, which was common for many countries at the time and even now if we are being specific. Anyways, noblemen could engage in polygamy through having multiple wives. It was the duty for a woman to bear as many children as possible so that at least some of them will make it to adulthood. Children were also not cared for or as healthy as they could be now. For example, children born from commoner or slave concubines were considered illegitimate and denied any yangban rights.

These rights were reserved to grant many privileges by the state, including land and stipends, according to their official grade and status. If we move onto 19th century Korea, the country was adhering to a strict isolationist rule so that no movements of ideology or goods would come in or out of the country. This could have had negative effects on the future generation of the Koreans because closed borders risks limiting things such as food, water, and education to the wealthy elite while common folk people, including children, would suffer.

Going forward into the 20 and 21th century, we would reach a point in Korea where there is rapid modernization and technology where famines and dying children were not as big of a worry as in the past.

However, this is something that is not necessarily wiped out from history. For example, North Korea had their own famine in the late 90’s. The North Korean famine was also known as the Arduous March and for good reason. An economic crisis as well as mismanagement of resources created a shortage of support from partner countries and a decline in food production. Millions of North Korean citizens fell victim and died from starvation and related illnesses.

According to the study by the WHO, children, especially those under two years old, were most affected by both the famine and the poverty of the period. There is actually a term to describe the children who ended up surviving the famine to some extent: the Kotjebi. The word literally means “flowing swallows;” because of their constant search for food and shelter in order to survive.

However, many did not make it to be Kotjebi, and these kids were not recognized by the North Korean government as such because what happened to these children is something that the country is perhaps ashamed of. From this example, one can see how relevant food and health crises are to this day, and why Korea continues to worry and care for its children.

So yes, the first Korean birthday is a big event. Whether that be wearing the traditional Dol hanboks or playing around with Doljabi items as shown on Joteta’s Korean Online Shop, it’s amazing how Korean history is preserved by this celebration. Based on history, infant mortality rates were historically very high when Korea was a poor and developing country. Because of this, a Korean baby’s first birthday is a sign that the baby will make it to adulthood and have a healthful future.

During old times where poverty and famine severely impacted the country’s citizens, it was very rare for a baby to survive for more than 100 days.