When my Korean friend invited me to her daughter’s first birthday party I was happy to be a part of her special day. I was told it would be held at a venue not far from her home in Seoul and thought no more of it. What she didn’t tell me is that this event was a pretty big deal in Korean culture. I learned as I went.
The first birthday party in Korea is more like a wedding ceremony than a little one eating home-made cake with their hands. I walked into the venue to meet my friend and found her at the end of a long hallway looking a little stressed and speaking quickly into her cell phone. As I approached I saw that her hair had been spun and twisted into a beautiful updo and her makeup had been professionally done. I noticed she was standing outside of a mini salon, where she had just finished said hair and makeup. I saw her in a pair of jeans and relaxed a little, as I myself was in jeans and a nice top and thought for a moment that I was underdressed.
“Is this what you’re wearing?” I asked.
“No no! Come here, I’ll show you,” she said, leading me further down the hall to a big dressing room. Uh oh. I was so not ready for this level of fancy.
It’s ok, I told myself. Just play the foreigner card. You didn’t know you weren’t supposed to wear jeans or that this was practically a black tie event.
She proceeded to show me the western-style evening dress she would be wearing for the beginning of the event, then the traditional Korean hanbok she would change into for the second half. Her baby and husband also had both western and Korean outfits they would be renting from the venue for the afternoon. The fitting room had everything from dress shoes to hair accessories for baby and Mom. This was going to be quite the ordeal.
Once her husband arrived, he too had to sit in the makeup artist’s chair and get his face and hair spruced up.
Once that was sorted it was into the first outfit and off to take some photos with the hired photographer that would be their shadow for the rest of the event.
We were approaching the start time for the party so we drifted into our allocated party room (there were at least 6 party rooms that I could see on that floor) and elaborate picture taking continued. Mom, Dad and baby were constantly being photographed in different arrangements and settings around the room as guests started filing in and sitting down. Eventually an MC appeared to formally get the party started at which time Mom, Dad and baby disappeared for a wardrobe change. We were all invited to dig into the buffet outside in the dining hall and I was relieved to see some family and friends wearing jeans. All was not lost.
After some time for the guests to eat, the young family re-emerged in their matching traditional Korean clothes and took a seat at the back of the room. The lights went dim and the MC started to play a video of baby Minsole’s first year of life. It was quite touching to watch and sweet to see the new parents just revel in their little one.
The reason for such a big celebration comes from the old days in Korea. Long ago most Korean people were poor and many were unhealthy due to malnutrition and other ailments. Many babies didn’t survive their first year and although sad, it was the way of life then. As conditions improved, more babies made it through their first year and so began the tradition of having an elaborate celebration for each baby’s first birthday. They do this in China too, both cultures celebrating the simple fact that their young ones are healthy and continue to live. (Koreans also celebrate a baby’s 100 day anniversary, but it’s not as big of a party, mostly just a photo shoot in a studio.)
After Minsole’s video montage, the MC hosted some games including a raffle draw, a quiz game and a “guess the baby’s future” game (I chose that she would become a doctor). Soon after, the MC left the room and left us to finish nibbling on our buffet treats. During that relaxed time at the end, guests approached my friend to congratulate her on her baby’s successful life thus far and gave her an envelope of money which was slid delicately into her purse with a humble “thank you.” Although another Korean friend told me that money or a gift was suitable for a first birthday party, I the lone foreigner, was the only one who gave a gift and once again I felt a little underprepared for the event. That being said, English books for babies (the cardboard or foamy ones that kids can’t destroy) are hard to find in Korea so my gift was unique at least.
At the end of the day, Korean people are practical and I think this is why monetary funds are the most common gift. Same goes for funerals. Parties and funerals cost money to host and this is why money is usually given at both events. It’s a way for friends and family to ease the burden of the cost of life’s milestones.
Here’s a run-down of the basic costs for one of these shindigs:
Hair and make up for Mom and Dad = 110,000 won (approx. $115 CAD)
Outfit rentals for Mom, Dad & Baby = 200,000 won (approx. $210 CAD)
Photographer for approx. 3 hours = 270,000 won (approx. $285 CAD)
Room rental for 50 people (all inclusive) = 1,500,000 won (approx. $1,590 CAD)
Total cost (rental rooms can be bigger if needed) = 2,080,000 won (approx $2,200 CAD)
Once everyone left, Mom and Dad finally got a plate of food and were able to sit down and eat. Baby Minsole was back in her street clothes and fast asleep in her stroller. After dinner, they changed out of their traditional garb and my friend was her regular self once more. Tired but happy, we drove home chattering about how good Minsole behaved having her picture taken for over 2 hours straight. I was proud of her because if it were me, Auntie Karli couldn’t have done it. I was honoured to be a part of their celebration and will never see first birthdays the same way again.