Korean birthday celebrations or Dol are one of the important facets of Korean culture. When a person reaches an important age in his or her life, Koreans have unique celebrations to mark these milestones. Dol has two meanings in Korean: The most common meaning is a child's first birthday or Doljanchi. It can also be used as a generic description for birthdays: Cheot-dol (first birthday), Du-dol (second birthday), Seo-dol (third birthday), etc.

Korean age

East Asian age reckoning is a concept and practice that originated in China and is widely used by other cultures in East Asia. People begin life at the age of one (instead of "zero"), and on New Year's Day, one year is added to their age.

Since age is incremented at the beginning of lichun, which is the first of the twenty-three solar terms, rather than on a birthday, people may be one or two years older in Asian reckoning than in the western age system.

South Koreans generally refer to their age in units called sal (살), using Korean numerals in ordinal form. Thus, a person is one sal ("han sal", 한살) during the first calendar year of life, and ten sal during the tenth calendar year.

South Koreans celebrate their birthdays, even though every South Korean gains one 'sal' on New Year's Day. Because the first year comes at birth and the second on the first day of the New Year, children born, for example, on December 29 will reach two years of age on the New Year's Day, when they are only days old in western reckoning. Hence, everyone born on the same calendar year effectively has the same age and can easily be calculated by the formula: Age = (Current Year - Birth Year) + 1

In modern South Korea, the traditional system is most often used. The international age system is referred to as "man-nai" (만나이) in which "man" (만) means "full" or "actual", and "nai" (나이) meaning "age". For example, man yeol sal means "full ten years", or "ten years old" in English. The Korean word dol means "years elapsed", identical to the English "years old", but is only used to refer to the first few birthdays. Cheotdol or simply dol refers to the first Western-equivalent birthday, dudol refers to the second, and so on. This system has not been used in modern North Korea since 1980s.

The Korean Birthday Celebrations by the lunar calendar is called eumnyeok saeng-il (음력 생일, 陰曆生日) and yangnyeok saeng-il (양력 생일, 陽曆生日) is the birthday by Gregorian calendar.

For official government uses, documents, and legal procedures, a chronological age system is used akin to the system used in Western countries. Regulations regarding age limits on beginning school, as well as the age of consent, are all based on a chronological system (man-nai). The age limit for tobacco, alcohol use are after January 1 of the year one's age turns to 19.

Birthday traditions

Dol (돌)

Dol (doljanchi, or tol) is probably one of the best-known of the Korean birthday celebrations. Dol is celebrated for the first birthday of a child. When Korea had little medicinal knowledge, many newborns would die from childhood diseases or because of Korea's seasonal temperature differences. When a child lived to be a year old during that period, it was a very joyous occasion.

This ceremony blesses the child with a prosperous future and has taken on great significance in Korea. The birthday babies wear a hanbok and a traditional hat: a jobawi or gulle for baby girls and a bokgeon or hogeon (호건) for baby boys.

At home, family members give thanks to Samshin (three gods who are believed to take care of the baby's life while growing up) by serving plain rice, seaweed soup, and rice cakes. For the party, parents prepare a special 'Dol' table, where food is stacked high to symbolize a life of prosperity for the baby. The table is set mainly with a rice cake of pretty rainbow layers, seaweed soup, and fruits. Miyeok guk (seaweed soup) is served on every birthday after the first birthday to remind people of what their mother went through to bring them into the world.

Saei-rye (세이레)

The baby's well-being is celebrated 21 days after the birth with a meal of white rice, Miyeok guk (Miyeok seaweed soup), and Baekseolgi (white rice cake tteok). The Baekseolgi symbolizes sacredness. By this time, the baby and mother are still recovering from birth, so people were not allowed to see them. However, close family members are met and prayed for the healthy recovery of the baby's mother on this day.

Baek-il (백일)

Baek-il is the 100th-day celebration; it literally means "a hundred days" in Korean and is given a special celebration, marking the survival of what was once a period of high infant mortality. During this celebration, the family worships Samshin. They make her offerings of rice and soup for having cared for the infant and the mother, and for having helped them live through a difficult period.

Hwangap (환갑)

When a person turns 60, there was a celebration known as hwangap. This was considered an auspicious year, since when someone turned 60 the sexagenary cycle of the Korean zodiac is complete. It is now celebrated on the 70th birthday instead, since most people live to be 60.

There is a celebration; children honor their parents with a feast and merrymaking. Part of the celebration involves the children of the birthday celebrant; starting with the eldest, they bow and offer wine to their parents. After the children give their respects to their parents, their children show respect to them; again starting with the eldest, in the same way.

Coming-of-age rites

A less well-known birthday celebration is when a boy or girl reaches their adult age (20 for the boy and 15 for the girl). When a boy turned into an adult he would tie his hair into a top knot and be given a Gat (traditional cylindrical Korean hat made of horsehair). He would be required to lift a heavy rock as a test of his strength. If he can lift and move the rock, he is considered a man. A girl would become an adult by rolling her braided hair into a chignon bun and fixing it with a Binyeo, a long ornamental hairpin.


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