Tonight we went to our first tol, a Korean-style first birthday party. It was quite an extravagant event. A family we met while we were in Virginia in 2004 invited us for their daughter’s first birthday. The tol, or first birthday, a big milestone in a child’s life and cause for huge celebration in Korea. While a first birthday party for an American child often consists of a small gathering of friends and family who celebrate the occasion with a birthday cake and candles, perhaps even at McDonald’s, a Korean tol is much more elaborate. The mom who invited us to celebrate her daughter’s birthday insisted that this tol was a middling affair, but I was very impressed. She rented the entire floor at a restaurant that specializes in hosting tol in a building overlooking Toksu Palace in downtown Seoul. It must have cost hundreds of dollars. The party featured a full buffet with dessert table and an assortment of drinks. The spread was delicious. The centerpiece of the tol is a dais situated above the attendees where the child is seated amidst a bounty of food and gifts. The tol at tonight’s event was a table, behind which the proud parents stood with their daughter in their arms in front of a big cake, surrounded by colorful pink and lavender balloons.
An emcee hosted the event, offering a play-by-play account of the action. The birthday girl’s parents placed five different objects in front of their daughter in the hope that she will choose one of them: 1) A microphone; 2) A stethoscope; 3) Pencils; 4) Money; and 5) Yarn. The five objects represent entertainment, medicine, education, wealth, and longevity. Whichever object the one-year-old child chooses allegedly determines his or her future. The emcee announced that the birthday girl had chosen the microphone, a symbol that she will have a very entertaining life. Afterwards, the emcee hosted a raffle and gave away gifts to members of the audience. I was given a number, but I’m glad my name didn’t come up because the dialogue was in Korean, not English. I was told that if I had been chosen, I would have had had to wish the child well with some pithy saying in order to claim my gift. While I wish the birthday girl well, I was happy to let the Koreans do the public well wishing.
Why is a child’s first birthday such a big occasion in South Korea? Even as recently as the 1970s, child mortality in South Korea was very high (it is still very high in North Korea). Many child died before their first birthday. If they reached their first birthday, their chances of long-term survival increased substantially. The tol is a Korean traditional celebration the optimism that the child will live to at least adulthood. Nowadays, the event is thankfully more of a formality than an actual affirmation that a Korean child will survive infancy.
For the Shutterbugs: I posted three new photo albums from our trip to Jeju Island. Enjoy!