We spent the evening at a friend’s place celebrating his son’s 100th day birthday. My friend is a World Adventurers reader, so I’m sure he’ll read this post. He’s welcome to post a comment, but I’ll leave it to him to reveal his identity. He’s always good for a quicky witted, pithy comeback, so I’m sure he’ll take the bait. Yesterday I told him we planned to bring gifts for the entire family, but he protested, “Please don’t buy any gifts if you haven’t already. I feel guilty [taking gifts].” Well now, let’s see. Although he is American and his wife is Georgian, true to Korean custom they threw a 100-day celebration (Baek-il, or 백일) for their son. As is Korean custom, guests should come bearing gifts whenever they are invited over to someone’s home. Therefore, our friends must accept our gifts with glad hearts. I also bribed them with some cilantro, which they have had difficulty finding in Korea.
I did a little research to understand why the 100-day celebration is such a significant milestone in a child’s life. The 100-day celebration is also observed in Chinese culture; it is virtually unheard of in western cultures. Baek-il is the second of three events in a child’s first year of life celebrating his or her continued health. According to Korean tradition, these events should only be celebrated if the child is healthy. The first event, the 21-day celebration, celebrates the child’s first 21 days of life. It is not as well known as Baek-il because at 21 days the child and mother are traditionally confined to the home and are not allowed to see guests. The child’s family members traditionally observe the day in absentia by praying for the child. Baek-il is the official coming-out ceremony for most Korean child. The child’s first birthday, or Tol (돌), is the third and perhaps most important of the three events. Once the child passes their first birthday happy and healthy, it is very likely that they will live a longer life. It’s easy to forget in this day and age that many of our cultural celebrations such as birthdays originated out of the need to survive. Child mortality was very high in Korea until the 1960′s, and these celebrations are testaments to the fact that many Korean children did not live to see their first birthdays.
Now that you’re thoroughly depressed, let me share the happier side of these celebrations. Baek-il and tol are opportunities for families to come together and meet the newest members of the clan. It is often the impetus for family reunions, just as Chuseok (추석), a day to remember one’s ancestors, brings together Korean families every year. These celebrations give families an excuse to share their bounty with family and friends. They serve foods that are typically served only at special occasions, such as rice cakes, or deok (덕). Food becomes even more significant on the child’s first birthday, when the child is seated in the midst of a variety of foods. Korean tradition maintains that a child’s future will be determined by the first food that they touch. (I wondered whether that led parents to game the system by putting the most desirable food closest to the child.) Traditionally, the children have received money, gold trinkets, or clothing as gifts, although modern families may give more eloborate gifts such as toys or tech gadgets. Thus, it is customary for guests to bear gifts to these types of events, just as we did. If I didn’t, I couldn’t call myself Korean. Oh wait, I’m not Korean. That’s OK. He better accept them anyway.
For more information on Korean birthday celebrations, visit:
Note to Quemino’s World: Welcome back to Seattle. I hear there’s been some snow in the area. It was great meeting Alex and you for dinner and drinks in Busan. I hope you had a great trip to Thailand…at least better than your last day in Busan! Sorry to hear about the bummer ending to your APEC trip. How did I blog during the APEC Summit? Well, when you are stuck at a hotel near the airport, as far as you can get from the action, and you get back to your hotel room too late to do much, your family is five hours away, and the cable TV features one English channel but has an Internet connection, you cope by posting blog entries. I’ll see you in July when we return to Seattle for a visit.