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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: