What a dol: Rituals we pass on to our kids

Hannah Sung shows her baby how to celebrate Korean-style.

Photo: Michael Sung

Growing up, Mom taught me Korean nursery rhymes and prepared nightly meals with crisp kimchi and steamed rice. Every New Year’s Day morning, our family donned hanbok, traditional folk finery, and we kids would bow deeply to our elders. That’s how Mom and Dad kept Korean culture alive in our little home.

Now that I have a baby myself, with a non-Korean husband (don’t worry, Honey, you’re an honorary Korean), I’m now the gatekeeper of my culture for a new generation.

As my son Tokki’s first birthday approaches, I decide to celebrate in traditional style. A Korean dol birthday par ty overflows with food and family, all centred around a fortune-telling ritual. I want Tokki to have photos, as I do, of himself being feted on his big day. My only source of information was two dol parties thrown more than 30 years ago. No, I can’t rely on Mom forever, so I research the way any modern-world citizen does — Google.

While some babies in Korea have first birthday parties far fancier than my wedding, I keep ours sweet and simple, decorating our backyard with balloons and streamers and borrowing a baby hanbok. I already own one, as does my husband. (See? He really is an honorary Korean.)

It’s a perfect July morning when my mom and aunts take over my kitchen. My brother delivers catered noodles, Korean sushi and, most importantly, a traditional rice cake — a dense round stack of pastel rainbow layers.

Once our guests are mingling, my husband and I whisk Tokki upstairs to change. Within seconds, I’ve pantsed my chubby son and slipped him into a jacket with long, bell-shaped sleeves and poufy pants. I’m afraid he might fuss in all the fabric, but he exhibits a regal patience, as if he knows he’s on the cusp of a momentous occasion. My husband and I change, too, and when the three of us re-enter the backyard in our hanbok, we’re a mini-parade of colourful regalia, bedecked in thick stripes, embroidery and sashes.

“Get out the cameras!” my aunt trills. Tokki, a social butterfly, is in heaven. As we seat him at the doljanchi table, piled high with fruit, candy and cake, my mother takes care of a last detail — slipping a tiny, pure gold ring on Tokki’s little finger. Now he truly looks like a little prince.

The marquee event of a dol is a fortune-telling ritual in which items are placed before the baby. Whatever he or she grabs first is said to denote the child’s future. A bowl of rice symbolizes prosperity. A spool of thread represents long life. A pencil represents scholarly ability, and money represents, well, money. Other more modern choices include a microphone for performance and even a stethoscope for all the Tiger Moms.

Does it truly matter which item the baby chooses? Not to me. Instead, I’m just excited dreaming of his future happiness, whatever it may entail.

Our backyard goes silent as the crowd stares at Tokki, who stares back. Finally, he grabs…a microphone! We all erupt in applause, the hanbok comes off in the heat, and Tokki plays happily all afternoon.

Days later, it occurs to me to ask my mom what I had chosen at my own dol.

“Microphone!”

It’s a strange feeling to realize my son had just gone through motions mirroring my own from more than 30 years ago. But of course, that’s the whole point. The rituals we pass on to our children are like a long string that ties generations together. I hope he appreciates these strands as much as I love passing them on.