Baek-il, 100th Day Celebration in Korea
By Matthew Fennell
Every birthday is special and well celebrated in Korea, but some milestones hold greater significance than others. In modern day Korea, “Dol” is one of the best-known birthday celebrations in which a party is thrown when the child reaches one year old. These parties are becoming more and more lavish and the first birthday, or "Doljanchi", is now an event where affluent parents in one of the world's biggest economies flaunt their wealth. Another important and celebrated day in the life of a Korean infant is “Baek-il”, and is held on the 100th day after the child’s birth. In 2015 Korea, “Baek-il” carries less significance than “Dol”, but a look back into Korea’s past reveals that this was not always the case.
Long ago in Korea childhood diseases were common and the survival rate for new born babies was very low. The high death rate was due to a lack of medical information, poor hygiene, Korea's harsh winters and humid summers, and many other childhood related diseases. To protect their children and to give the best chance of survival, parents refrained from taking the baby outdoors until the 100th day after the birth. On that 100th day, a family would traditionally pray and give food offerings to thank the Shaman spirit of childbirth for the child having survived this difficult period. If the child was sick at this time, the family would pass the day without celebration or party as this would be considered bad luck for the infant. At this time in Korea, the 100th day was seen as a critical day of a child’s life.
If the child was in good health, the spirit was honored with offerings of rice and sea mustard soup in gratitude for having cared for the infant and the mother, and for having helped them live through a difficult period. Rice cakes and wine also played a huge part in the celebrations. Tradition claimed that by placing the rice cakes at the four compass points within the house the child would be protected. Another belief was that if the steamed rice cakes were shared with 100 people, the infant would have a long and healthy life. Therefore, rice cakes were sent to as many family, relatives and friends as possible to help celebrate the happiness of the occasion.
Traditionally the number 100 has a deep meaning of maturity in Korea; making it past the first 100 days was a sign that you would live to see your first birthday, and making it past your first birthday was a sign that you would make it out of infancy. Improvements in medicine, rapid development and modern industrialization have led to the Shamanistic reasons for the celebration being reduced. The event is still celebrated in modern day Korea as a time of congratulations for the parents and family, however it is important not to forget the traditions and meanings behind the celebration.
*Matthew Fennell is the Asia Society Korea Center's Contributing Writer and is also Assistant Professor at Hanyang University in Seoul.