Saturday, we had a Dol (or Tol)
for Baby Dog, which is the traditional first-birthday extravaganza for Korean babies. Perhaps because Baby Dog is only ¼ Korean, we managed to be only about ¼ traditional, but that was still enough to make it a very memorable day. Historically, the Dol was a big deal in Korea because there was a very high infant mortality rate. Up until the first year, cause to celebrate seemed a little iffy. If a child survived to its first birthday, it stood a greatly increase chance of living to adulthood, so really the first birthday became a deferred celebration of the birth. We don’t have the same statistical reasons for having a Dol, and in truth have been openly chuffed about our daughter this whole past year. But western tradition also calls for a celebration on the day of birth – in English, called the “birthday” – so we tried to create a birthday celebration that reflected Baby Dog’s full heritage as a Korean-Scottish- English- and-a-little-bit-French-and-maybe-Dutch-and-Irish-but-we’re-not- really-sure-about-that girl – in short, a Canadian girl born in the United States.
To celebrate the Dol, the child is dressed in a hanbok
, a traditional garment for special events. Baby Dog first tried her hanbok on a month or two back and hated it, but she didn’t really seem to mind it too much this weekend. Maybe she’s grown into it since then. More likely, she was just distracted by the photo scrum that confronted her when she was brought out in the hanbok. Then, once the main ceremony began, it was too much like playtime for her to pay much attention to what she was wearing.
The main ceremony is called the Doljabee. We learned that very day from Gran what that means. The “dol” part we already knew – that just means “birthday.” But evidently “jabee’ means “grab.” So literally, it’s a “birthday grab.” Coincidentally, this also describes every western birthday tradition with which I’m familiar. In the Doljabee, the father –that would be me in this instance – sets the baby down on a table laden with several objects of symbolic significance. Traditionally, these include a book, representing scholarship; a coin representing wealth; a needle and thread,* representing long life; and a ruler, symbolizing skill with the hands. We messed with tradition here by adding in a paint brush to symbolize artistic ability; a wooden spoon, for culinary skill; and a poker chip symbolizing, as I explained to the gathered celebrants, “an ability to fleece chumps.” I had been predicting since the subject first came up that Baby Dog would go first for the book. It seemed a foregone conclusion, since books are hand down her favourite toys. It would have been a cheat to use Ten Little Ladybugs, so instead I put down my beat-up paperback copy of The Call of the Wild
, which was the first book I ever read to her, when she was just a week or two old. We didn’t get very far, but the first sentence of English literature to ever pass her ears was: “Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tidewater dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.”
As you may have guessed, she didn’t
go for the book. Children will do that, confounding their parents’ expectations. But what a little leap of pride I felt in my heart when I saw what she did
reach for: the poker chip. My little shark! She dove for that thing with such an enthusiastic little chortle. The second object she went for was the paint brush. Tradition says it’s the first two objects that are most important, so our theory is that she’s in some way going to conduct swindles in the art world. Perhaps she’ll sell fake Diebenkorns on Ebay. The third thing she picked was the ruler, indicating that she’ll be good with her hands – those three attributes suggest she might follow the old counterfeiter’s adage: “The best way to make money is to make money.” Or maybe she’ll just overcharge outrageously.
Nothing could be more unprecedented than me posting a picture of my child on the Internet but a) this was a big moment; b) the hanbok is too flamboyant not to share; and c) with her head down in the photo and with her wearing what amounts to a little superhero outfit, you really can’t see what she looks like anyway. So here’s the fateful moment, captured digitally for all time:
After the Doljabee, we put a bunch of food on the table and took pictures of Baby Dog seated among it. This was admittedly a bit of a slipshod stab at another Korean birthday tradition. Normally, the stacks of rice cake are arranged very carefully, and there’s a formal aspect to the portrait. We didn’t take as great pains with this part, because our guests were hungry and Gran had been cooking up a storm of mandu
all day. It was time to stop posing with food and start eating it.
Later, we enacted a western tradition, where a baked confection made from flour, eggs, butter, and sugar, called a “cake” was set on the kitchen table. The cake is garnished with one candle for every year of the birthday child’s life – in this case, one candle. The candle is lit and the child is exhorted to blow out the flame. Since Baby Dog is a bit too small to follow all that, I helped her a bit. After the flame was extinguished, there was applause, which Baby Dog happily joined in. Then the gathered well-wishers sang a traditional song called “Happy Birthday to You” (music by Mildred and Patty Hill, lyrics by Unknown), and we all had cake. Baby Dog finally got to relax, strapped into her high chair, while Gran gave her a little bit of birthday cake, the first truly sugary food Baby Dog has ever experienced. She made a little face, unused to the sweetness, but ate heartily.
It occurred to me that I forgot to instruct my daughter in the key element of the “birthday cake” tradition, wherein she’s supposed to make a wish before she blows out the candle. I don’t suppose she would have known what I was talking about this time around. Probably next year she will. In the meantime, it will have to suffice that she is our wish, and she is true.
___________________*A needle and thread? For a one-year-old to grab? Far be it from me to denigrate my daughter’s quarter-heritage, but is that nuts or what? A high mortality rate isn’t enough? You want a high put-your-eye-out-with-that-thing rate too? We used a big knitting needle, still in its plastic container.