The New Year might be the worst time to have a birthday. A birthday party in January struggles to attract attendees, you probably get combined holiday and birthday presents, and everyone else is too preoccupied thinking of all the resolutions they’re going to break to care about your big day.
Unless, that is, you’re from the Korean peninsula where everyone cares about your New Year birthday—because it is everyone’s birthday.
Koreans essentially have two birthdays: their Korean birthday, which is celebrated on the lunar New Year, and their “actual” birthday, which is celebrated on the day of birth. Both of these celebrations are important, but they do not hold the same weight.
Eunjoo Shin, a South Korean citizen from Gunsan who resides in Seoul, says “I love my individual date of birth, but we consider New Year’s more important.” This importance is derived from Korean emphasis on collectivity.
The Lunar New Year, which typically falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice, is a communal affair. Traditionally, entire families gather and spend the day cooking food to place on the home’s ancestral table as an offering. With the offerings, they bow and pray to the ancestral spirits for good luck in the new year. A meal is then shared with all the family.
The Korean birthday, eumnyeok saeng-il, is thus celebrated collectively, as all members of the family turn a year older at the same time. Once the meal is over, juniors offer a bow, sebae, to their elders, who in turn present them with gifts and money that are considered, as Shin puts it, good fortune. The rest of the day is spent in games, meals, and storytelling.
This collective birthday gives Koreans a very particular concept of age. Once born, a baby is considered to be one year old, accounting for the time spent in the womb. The baby will turn two not a year after it is born, but in the Lunar New Year. The new year will be celebrated in 2017 on January 28. This means that babies born on January 27, 2017, will be two years old in Korea, and one day old in the rest of the world.
In the Korean peninsula, this difference is extremely important. Korean culture organizes hierarchical social relationships based on age. Junior must treat seniors with respect, so knowing someone’s age is critical. Everyone born in the same lunar year shares the same age, so they are equal. But a person born a day before the lunar new year will be a year older than a person born a day after, and will thus be their senior.
What happens on a person’s “actual” date of birth, or yangnyeok saeng-il? It is still an occasion to celebrate, it’s just not as big. Shin says that she usually has a small party with around five people, or goes out to eat with friends and family.
Only certain birthdays, like the dol, or one-year birthday, and the 60th birthday, are considered of great importance. This is because for most of the peninsula’s history, many people died before these birthdays due to lack of medicine and markedly varying temperatures. If a baby survived after the first year, the chance of mortality decreased significantly, so it was an occasion for a great party. Likewise, it was not common for someone to live over 60, so it was seen as proper to revere elders who did.
Not only do Koreans have two ages, but they use both ages officially. For regulations on things like the age of consent and the commencement of school, the “actual” age is used. For other regulations like being able to buy tobacco and alcohol, what matters is the Korean age. That’s right, no Korean has had to wait patiently until their birthday to be able to go out with friends who turn of age just a couple of months before them.
The New Year tradition, like all traditions, cannot withstand the winds of change. Shin explains that Christians in Korea usually celebrate New Year with the family, but forego the memorial service for the ancestors, as it is contradictory to their faith. She sees this as a direct influence of western culture. She also says that younger generations are not as interested in memorial services because they take too much effort. A great part of the day is spent cooking the meals offered to the ancestors, and she says that younger people “want to go on a trip or relax at home rather than hold the memorial service.”
Despite these cultural shifts between generations, the New Year remains the most important festival of the year, and age continues to define the social structure of the peninsula.
Update (1/3/17): The article originally referred to tteokguk as a seaweed soup eaten in the New Year. Tteokguk is a dumpling soup with rice cake slices.