Kim Kyeong-jun, a banker, invited over 150 friends, co-workers, and relatives to his second child’s first birthday party last year.
He splurged on the event, spending over 3.5 million won ($3,000) and serving each guest a 40,000-won meal at a fancy banquet hall, with a professional emcee leading the day’s program.
He and his wife had their hair and makeup done by professionals, while their little one was also properly prepped for the spotlight as the star of the day. A photographer went around to capture every moment of the event.
Kim’s way of celebrating a baby’s first birthday has long been a norm for many families in South Korea. It is a centuries-old tradition that has grown more lavish in the past few years as fewer babies are born in the country.
The tradition, locally called “doljanchi,” is at a critical juncture.
Amid the sluggish domestic economy, changing social perceptions, and the introduction of a new anti-graft law, young Korean parents are redefining how a baby’s first birthday should be celebrated.
“We threw the party because everyone else did,” said a 28-year-old mother who in May hosted a relatively small doljanchi for her first daughter. Her family spent over 2 million won on the event, inviting some 60 people.
“It was actually tiring for us because the baby didn’t act the way we wanted and the baby was put in a stressful environment,” she said. “I will not hold the party for my second child.”
She is not alone in rethinking doljanchi.
A growing number of families are forgoing the wedding-like extravaganza and guest invitations, choosing to keep the celebrations to a small, family-only event.
According to a poll conducted by a baby product store, Petit Elin, earlier this year, over 30 percent of 194 mothers with babies less than a year old responded that they do not plan on holding a doljanchi. Among them, 68 percent said they believe the party is only a show of vanity, while the rest had other plans.
The tradition of doljanchi has its roots in the 18th century in Korea, when the infant mortality rate was so high that making it past one’s first year was regarded as a major milestone. By throwing a party with as many people as possible, families wished the child good health and longevity.
In modern days, this meaning is mostly lost, as most babies survive their first year, but the ritual itself has continued in Korea as an event where families can legitimately show off their wealth and social connections, just like weddings, experts said.
“Parents of the younger generation see empty formalities and vanity in doljanchi and seek ways to celebrate the day with their own meaning,” said Lee Byung-hoon, a sociology professor at Chungang University.
Kim Ha-neul, a mother with a 5-month-old baby, is one of those trying to mark the day in a not so traditional, but more meaningful way.
“We plan to donate 3.65 million won to charity to celebrate my child’s first birthday,” said Kim.
“Even if we hold a big party, it is not like the baby would remember it.”
The One-Body One-Spirit Movement, a catholic organization campaigning to encourage parents to donate instead of holding birthday events in party halls, saw the number of donor families rise from 14 in 2008 to 615 last year.
In the fast-changing doljanchi scene, some businesses flourish while others flounder.
“Five to six years ago when I started the business, pre-made doljanchi supplies were becoming very popular among parents who want to save money. They would just order the set and have a small party in their homes,” said Kang Myeong-sook, who runs an online mall for doljanchi supplies.
But from a year or two ago, sales had dropped by half, as photo studios, targeting budget-conscious parents, started to prepare doljanchi sets for photo sessions. Instead of holding a party, families would just take photos at these studios and eat out.
“It’s hard to keep up with the fast changes,” she said.
The lackluster economy is another factor driving the changes.
Just like weddings, doljanchi guests offer packets of money in return for a nice meal. A customary doljanchi gift was a gold ring for the baby, but due to fluctuations of gold prices, a monetary gift has now become the norm.
Kim Kyeong-jun, the banker father who spent 3.5 million won on doljanchi, received 8 million won from guests, reaping a return of 5.5 million won. His guests offered 100,000 won to 140,000 won per couple in congratulatory money.
But for this particular reason, some consider doljanchi invitations as a financial burden and even a nuisance.
A 2015 survey found that nearly a third of those polled said doljanchi invitations from co-workers are unwelcome and burdensome.
“I rarely go to doljanchi, because at my workplace, people don’t invite co-workers. Even if I do get invited, I see no reason why I have to attend the birthday party of a co-worker’s baby” said an office worker in Seoul who is single.
The implementation of a new anti-graft law also has a direct impact on doljanchi.
Often referred to as the Kim Young-ran law, it restricts government officials, journalists and private school faculty from offering and receiving meals worth over 30,000 won ($27), gifts worth over 50,000 won or any other type of illicit solicitation.
Congratulatory or condolence money of up to 100,000 won are allowed in cases of weddings and funerals, but doljanchi is not included in the category. This means that doljanchi gifts should comply with the 50,000 won guideline. Meals, too, should be under 30,000 won for those subject to the law.
Mid-market doljanchi venues in Seoul typically offer buffet meals at 30,000 won to 40,000 won per head.
A mother of two daughters, who gave only her surname Yu, ditched her plan to invite about 80 guests to her daughter’s first birthday party in November and decided to hold it as a family-only event because her husband works for the military.
“It became awkward for both us and the guests to provide meals and for them to bring celebratory money since guests are mostly my husband’s co-workers from the military,” she said.
Many event organizers in the industry report such cancellations due to worries of a possible violation of the law.
“Social relationships are very important in Korean society and family events such as doljanchi and marriage are big social events rather than just family occasions,” Lee of Chungang University said.
“The implementation of the law should reduce the empty formalities of such showy events,” he said.
By Jo He-rim(email@example.com