Doljanchi — Why the Korean Tradition Lives On

A journey in finding new meaning, written by Donna Chang, CEO

Me, holding up a Hope Biosciences banking brochure featuring my family.
Me, holding up a Hope Biosciences banking brochure featuring my family.

Every time I open up one of our stem cell banking brochures, I see this picture of my family. People will often ask, where is this? What’s the occasion?… I was encouraged by our team to write about this particular day and in doing so, I found new meaning, which in turn, made the work that we do all the more significant.

 

After 24 hours of labor, delivering two babies into this world, I was caught in the daze that many new moms describe as “running on autopilot.” The postpartum haze of hormones, sleep deprivation, and physical challenges can make the simplest day-to-day tasks feel insurmountable. So you can imagine my reaction when my parents came to me during these extra sensitive first months and said “Hey! Let’s plan their first birthday in Korea!!!” (The extra exclamation marks cannot begin to do justice to their level of enthusiasm). My thoughts? Ummmmmm, how about we focus on how I can tandem feed these guys without dropping one?!

 Sam and Grace — Day One of Life
Sam and Grace — Day One of Life

Doljanchi (돌잔치) is made up of two words. Dol (돌) is one year and Janchi (잔치) is a celebration often involving food (lots and lots of food). It wouldn’t surprise me if Korean grandmas were the original inspiration behind all-you-can-eat buffets.

Like weddings, Doljanchis come with different sized budgets and style choices, but they always have one thing in common: it’s a huge celebration. This Korean tradition dates back to the 18th century when infant mortality was far too common. Although it’s difficult to find precise infant mortality rates in Korea for this time period, the life of royalty was very well documented. We can only assume that if royal babies were dying at the rate observed, a far worse fate existed for commoners outside of the palace. Because of this, an infant making it to their first birthday was seen as a major achievement and cause for celebration.

Royal infant mortality in 19th Century Korea. Source: https://www.usfca.edu/sites/default/files/pdfs/app_xii1_4_kim.pdf
Royal infant mortality in 19th Century Korea. Source: https://www.usfca.edu/sites/default/files/pdfs/app_xii1_4_kim.pdf
Joseon Dynasty Doljanchi — National Museum of Korea
Joseon Dynasty Doljanchi — National Museum of Korea

Image from The National Folk Museum of Korea
Image from The National Folk Museum of Korea

Today, South Korea is a thriving nation and one of the leaders in modern medicine. Infant mortality currently stands at 1.9 deaths per 1000 live births (Source: UN World Population Prospects). If infant mortality is now almost non-existent, why do we continue celebrating the one year milestone with extravagant celebrations? Why not adapt to the sweet-sixteens, bar/bat mitzvahs, or quinceaneras that other cultures use to celebrate a coming of age?


Grace, sitting in my seat, forcing me to stand, all while keeping the sweetest face.
Grace, sitting in my seat, forcing me to stand, all while keeping the sweetest face.

If we could answer that question, we might also be able to explain how we were convinced to take two, nearly one-year-olds on an 18-hour journey across the globe. While it is tempting to blame such a seemingly crazy decision on new-parent fatigue, the more likely truth is that mothers can be very convincing! On the plane I found myself wondering, “ Why? Why are we doing this? This is nuts. For a one year birthday? They don’t even have friends at this age! This is crazy.” Nevertheless, we were persuaded, we did go to Korea, and I am grateful every day that we did so.


 

The Big Day

Upon arrival in Korea to celebrate Sam and Grace and after a professional photo shoot and several wardrobe changes (for the kids), we were off to the main event. My parents planned the entire event with the help of professional Doljanchi event planners (yes, that’s really a thing!). Here are a few photos of the truly magnificent day:

A beautifully decorated display at the entrance of our venue.
A beautifully decorated display at the entrance of our venue.
Life-size cut-outs
Life-size cut-outs
Well wishes from friends and family
Well wishes from friends and family
Hanbok — Korean traditional dress
Hanbok — Korean traditional dress
Details of the Dol Table. Fruit and rice cakes are often staked high to symbolize a prosperous future.
Details of the Dol Table. Fruit and rice cakes are often staked high to symbolize a prosperous future.
Stacks of thread to symbolize a long life. On the left, a stack of dried jujube dates and on the right, a stack of colored rice cakes.
Stacks of thread to symbolize a long life. On the left, a stack of dried jujube dates and on the right, a stack of colored rice cakes.
A stunning view of the Dol table
A stunning view of the Dol table
Also in this photo: My husband and I,  holding the prince and princess up for the camera.
Also in this photo: My husband and I, holding the prince and princess up for the camera.

If anyone had walked into the room without knowing what was going on, they would have assumed that two babies were getting married to each other! The atmosphere certainly had the celebratory feeling of a wedding.

Doljabi — a table of various objects placed in front of the child. They are to pick an object, which symbolizes their future occupation.
Doljabi — a table of various objects placed in front of the child. They are to pick an object, which symbolizes their future occupation.
My excitement when Grace picks the same object as Sam — the stethoscope.
My excitement when Grace picks the same object as Sam — the stethoscope.

Fun fact: After Dol, the next big birthday celebration is known as the Hwangap (환갑), and it doesn’t occur until one’s 61st birthday. This tradition celebrating longevity also stems from short life expectancy. Today, however, Hwangap celebrations are becoming less common, as 60 no longer feels like a milestone. Instead, celebrations for turning 70 (Chilsun) and 80 (Palsun) are more popular. This begs the question, if reaching the age of 60 is no longer considered a celebratory milestone, how has Dol managed to survive as a tradition?

Photo by Beyond Kimchee Blog
Photo by Beyond Kimchee Blog

My “ah ha” moment in answer to that question came in the form of soup (yes, you read that correctly). Another Korean birthday tradition involves eating Miyuk, or Seaweed Soup. In my family, we eat it all the time, but it is absolutely mandatory on a birthday. What’s the significance? In Korean culture, after a woman gives birth, miyuk soup is consumed in very large quantities due to its many health benefits. After the twins were born, I ate it five times a day for three months. When one eats miyuk soup on their birthday each year, it is done in remembrance of one’s mother and serves as a beautiful tribute to your birth story.

And there you have it! The reason Dol has survived and still remains one of the most important traditions in Korean culture is because it is not simply a celebration of a child reaching their first birthday, it has far deeper meaning. It is a tribute to the people who got them through that incredibly difficult first year and who will guide them through life. I’m sure many women can join me in saying that if had a party for the last day we had to breastfeed, it would be the biggest celebration imaginable. In all seriousness, Dol is just that. A reminder that we made it and a celebration of the limitless potential of our children; a celebration of what is yet to come.

I selected this picture for our banking brochure when I realized that every single person in this photo has their stem cells banked with us.
I selected this picture for our banking brochure when I realized that every single person in this photo has their stem cells banked with us.

For the adults in this picture, our cells will be available to us when we need them. Inevitably, we will have to use them to combat dementia, diabetes, arthritis, and more, but we are prepared for these battles and will fight to ensure each family member reaches every birthday milestone left to come!

For my children, Sam and Grace, I offer you a new tradition — a tradition that will allow you a different future. Your stem cells banked at birth can be used to prevent the very diseases that affect us today and give you a bright, beautiful, healthy road ahead. The downside? You’ll have to wait a really, really, really long time for that next big birthday celebration, as even 80 years of health becomes common. Here’s to the start of a new kind of tradition, one the two of you can help pass down for a future of healthier generations to come.

 

Written by Donna Chang | Edited by Maegan Rysso

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