Every birthday is special to Koreans, but certain birthdays are more than special.
Traditionally, we hold several special milestone birthday parties for children and older people, such as baek-il, tol, hwan-gap, and gohee.
Baek-il is celebrated on the 100th day after a child’s birth. Long ago in Korea, childhood diseases were common and the survival rate for children was very low. To protect their children, parents refrained from taking the baby outdoors until the 100th day after his or her birth.
It is not until baek-il that the baby was introduced to neighbors, friends and relatives. One of the baek-il’s special events is the parents providing rice cakes, called baekseolgi, to at least 100 people. They believe this event helps to protect the child’s life. They also pray for the child’s continued good health.
A child’s first birthday party, or tol, is a big celebration. The child is dressed in traditional Korean clothing and a special menu is prepared for the day.
One special tol event is toljabee. In this event, the child is seated before a table on which various items have been placed for the child to pick from. Traditionally, Koreans think that the first or second item picked by the child foretells his or her future. For instance, if the items picked are a book or pencil, then people think the child will be a successful scholar; if rice or money, the child will be wealthy; if thread, the child will have a long life. Today, some of these items have changed a bit. Parents who want their child to be an athlete will add a ball (golf, soccer, tennis, etc.) and parents who want their child to be a doctor will add a stethoscope.
Hwan-gap is the celebration of a 60th birthday. In the past, many people died before their 60th birthday, so people celebrated and prayed for a longer life at their 60th birthday. According to the Chinese sexagenary cycle, which is a system of 60 numbers, celebrating the 60th birthday meant that people lived a complete cycle of 60 years.
Nowadays, people are enjoying healthier and longer lives due to improved living conditions, and hwan-gap is not as significant as before. Today, Koreans are more likely to celebrate Gohee, or their 70th birthday. Many Koreans celebrate both birthdays more lavishly than normal birthday parties. More guests are invited, a special party location is selected, family pictures are taken, and songs and dances are performed. Koreans no longer celebrate these birthdays just because of their concern about health or fear of death, but the festive spirit doesn’t change at all.