SEOUL (Reuters) - It takes a lot more than a cake and a song to celebrate a baby’s first birthday in South Korea, where in the past disease and starvation claimed so many lives that the completion of an infant’s first year was a major milestone.
The first birthday, or “doljanchi”, is now an event where affluent parents in one of the world’s richest countries flaunt their wealth, connections and even their offspring’s gilded career prospects at lavish parties.
At one party in Apgujeong, dubbed the Beverly Hills of Seoul, one-year-old Dot-byul peered down at a tray of items symbolizing various professions - including a stethoscope for a doctor, a judge’s gavel and a microphone.
Dressed in a white princess gown with every moment captured by a professional photographer, she paused for a gurgle and then wrapped her tiny hands around a golf ball, in a gesture seen as signifying that she will grow up to be a golfer.
“We can hold low-key celebrations for her second, third and future birthdays, but for the very first I wanted to throw this party to show Dot-byul that everyone came here today to bless her,” said her mother Kim Jae-yeon, whose husband runs an information technology business.
The trappings of Dot-byul’s party were typical.
A slide show and a decorated “photo table” with framed pictures chronicled her young life. Another table, adorned with flowers and candles, featured a three-tier cake.
Guests gave packets of money, as they would at a wedding, and received gift bags packaged with the baby’s picture and boxes of tea.
Gift bags at first birthday events can contain mugs, rice, towels, candles or other items. Parents devote considerable thought to the gifts to differentiate their party from others.
Although starvation is no longer a threat, children have become precious commodities in another sense. As fewer South Koreans marry and more women pursue careers, the birthrate in this Asian country has plummeted.
The average number of babies born per woman fell to 1.23 in 2010 from 4.53 in 1970, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development says. That was the lowest rate among rich countries listed by the OECD.
“People these days attach a greater meaning to ‘dol’ because they do not give birth to a lot of children,” said Jung Ji-hyon, who threw a traditional banquet for her baby boy.
Other parents choose Western-style celebrations. The more lavish, the better.
“I will only have two kids at most and I want to do everything I can do for them. I would feel terrible to see my daughter feel inferior to her peers,” said Jennifer Song, a 28-year-old housewife who is pregnant with her second child.
Song said planning for a “dol” ceremony was more stressful than for a wedding, another tradition that has become a huge financial burden for young South Koreans.
In 2012, Song paid 10 million won ($9,400) for her first born’s “dol” at the Westin Chosun Hotel in central Seoul, and is already planning the party for her next child.
“As soon as I learned of my pregnancy, I called the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which is known for its outdoor celebrations, to reserve a place, but they put me on a waiting list,” she said.
There is now a cottage industry to tap into the money spent on the first birthday celebrations.
In 2010, Kim Eun-hee started a “dol” planning business because she saw a commercial opportunity, but also because she regretted not having a sufficiently lavish event for her child.
“I prepare luxurious parties for the babies of my clients, but I threw a humble one for my own daughter,” Kim said.
“I did not even hire a photographer back then. It hurt me when she saw me sifting through the pictures I took of other babies and asked me why she has no photos.”
($1=1065.5000 Korean won)
Editing by John O'Callaghan and Clarence Fernandez