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From Birth to First Birthday In Traditional Korea

Eunyoung Park from Korea

When a man and woman married in Korean traditional society, social norms required that they gave birth to as many boys as possible. Apparently, sons were preferred since they guaranteed the continuance of the family line and ancestor worship rituals.

Sacred straw rope
Drawing by Eunyoung Park

A sacred straw rope was hung over the gate when a child was born. If the child was a boy, pieces of charcoal and red peppers were fastened to the rope. If a girl baby was born, pieces of charcoal and green pines were fastened to it.


She chose a pencil; she'll be a scholar or a leader!
Photo: Kristin Pishdadi
Traditionally on a Korean child's first birthday, the child is put in front of a table with objects like rice cake, a book, a pencil, money, and yarn. What the baby chooses shows what the baby will become.

 

Women who were not able to give birth to boys or who were barren lived miserable lives. Very often, these women resorted to invoking the benevolence of divine nature. They sought a son by praying to the ‘Samshin goddess’, who was supposed to govern conception and child birth.

When a woman got pregnant, she was expected to observe certain taboos. She was advised to be specially careful; for example: don’t exhibit licentious, adulterous, ill-intended behavior, don’t kill living things, and don’t bear hatred. She had to keep her mind and body clean and neat. If she failed to do those things, they believed it would cause misfortune for the baby.

When the woman was expecting a baby, the best room was arranged for the delivery of a child. A sacred straw rope was hung over the gateposts when the child was born.

If the child was a boy, some pieces of charcoal and red peppers were fastened to the straw rope. If a girl baby was born, pieces of charcoal and green pines were fastened to it instead.

This taboo rope symbolized protection against evils and illness, and visitors were not permitted to enter houses for at least 21 days.

On the one hundredth day after the birth of child, the baby is congratulated on having survived the dangers of illness and the mother on having resorted her health. It was said that the baby would grow up healthy if pieces of rice cake and millet cake were distributed to one hundred neighbors.

The one year anniversary of a birth is called “Tol”. In the old days when medical service was poor and hardly available, infant mortality was so high that the first birthday party was held to congratulate the baby on its good health.

On the first birthday party, a special table, displaying many things like rice cake, fruit, a book, a pencil, money, and a hank of yarn, was set in front of a baby. Whatever the baby chose would show what he or she would become.

For example, the parents believed if the baby chose a pen or book, he would be a good scholar or leader. If he chose money, he would get rich. If he choose a hank of yarn, it meant a long life. In my case, I chose rice cake, so I have many chances to eat. It’s kind of fun. Nowadays, we still celebrate the one year anniversary.

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