The first birthday is probably the most important for Koreans. The next big one is at 60. We celebrated Moka’s first with just family. Usually the whole village is invited. But that village for us would include 30 million people. For this Korean celebration, the birthday girl and I were the only attending Koreans (my in-laws are Japanese) so I take full responsibility for any inauthentic elements.
The celebration, called tol in Korean, has been adapted by modern Koreans but they all have some shared elements. So here’s how we did it.
The Offering Table
The dais where the birthday girl hangs out is piled high with seasonal fruit and rice cakes. We couldn’t find fresh Korean rice cakes so we went with just fruit which is fine because we are a fruit loving family. And Moka is a fruit loving girl.
Usually they are stacked up using toothpicks grouped into towers of separate fruit. But as I was organizing them I liked the way they looked with different kinds of fruit per stack, like piles of multicolored stones you find at riverbanks.
Also on the table is usually money, rice and string all representing a prosperous long life.
Tomoko’s parents bought a hanbok for Moka. The hanbok is supposed to be the size of a two-year old so the child can grow into it. But her grandma hemmed it to fit her now. We chose a contemporary design.
The hanbok should be worn with a hat so we chose a style worn by courtiers of the Yi Dynasty. An accompanying pouch symbolizes wealth. And a belt wrapped around her twice represents longevity. If you haven’t figured it out yet it’s all about wealth and longevity.
The highlight of the tol is the child choosing among several objects representing her life and avocation. We included some traditional objects like yarn, money, book, and brush and added things like a digital toy camera, flower, recorder, and ball. Some modern Koreans include a stethoscope, calculator, computer mouse, and microphone. But we tilted her choices closer to literature design and the arts.
Instead of each object representing a specific career we wanted them to symbolize an archetypal field or area of interest. And many overlapped. For instance the brush and book can both represent writing or academics. The brush and camera could represent the visual arts. While the camera can double as something related to technology.
We chose things she had never seen before so that she wouldn’t be drawn to the familiar. We wanted them to be aesthetically pleasing, as well as have some meaning. For example, the recorder belonged to her mother when she was a child. And the money was a bundle of currencies from all the countries her mother and I had visited, 17 in all. We imagined that if she chose that wad of cash she’d be a world traveler.
I personally was hoping she’d choose the calligraphy brush. And I expected her to pick it since she loves pens and holds them in front of her like a wand. But maybe that means she wants to be a wizard and not so much a writer.
And I would have been happy for her to pick the book. She loves books, often bringing them to us to read, or perusing them in a quiet corner by herself.
But her choice was clear. She didn’t even hesitate. She went straight for the ball. And she didn’t pick anything else up.
Maybe she picked it because it was colorful. But she went past the beautiful wood calligraphy brush or the bright red flower and the intriguing toy camera. She didn’t even glance at the pile of colorful money from around the world.
She went for the cheap plastic ball made in China that we got at the last minute at the 100 yen shop.
Perhaps it’s not such a surprise. Moka is in constant motion, and she is always testing the limits of her physical abilities. It’s probably why she walked at such an early age. She regularly lifts heavy things and carries them to other rooms. She recklessly dives headfirst into her tent. Her grip has even made me wince.
I’m happy for her to be an athlete, but the ball could represent many other things involving the use of the body, like dance. The spherical shape could stand in for the earth and she could end up being an ecologist.
None of this will probably make a difference decades later as very few Koreans know what they picked. Whatever Moka decides to do and be, I know she’ll dive into headfirst with a running start.