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Q: I’ve been hearing my Korean co-worker talk about preparations for her son’s 100-day birthday. What’s up with that?

A: Back before modern medicine brought us innovations like incubators and sterile instruments, a baby surviving its first 100 days was quite an accomplishment, and not by any means a given. This fact of life — now outdated since South Korea’s infant mortality rate has dropped to a relatively low 6.16 per 1,000, a bit lower than the U.S. rate — resulted in a tradition of celebration for those tots who pass the milestone.

The observance is called baek-il and is marked with a party that’s a lot of fun for parents and friends of the family, but probably slept through by the kid being honored. Rice cakes are distributed to the homes of friends and family, who reciprocate with gifts for the baby. A feast featuring a variety of special rice cakes, each with a symbolic meaning, is spread, prayers of thanks are said, and the official baby photo is snapped. After that 100-day milestone is reached, the parents breathe a sigh of relief and relax a little, enough to bring their babies outdoors and into daily life without so much worry.

But in recent years, baek-il has taken a backseat to a child’s one-year birthday, called dol. Once again, guests are summoned and a feast is laid out. The child is dressed in a hanbok and photos are taken for posterity.

And then the party games begin: Items like money, a pen, thread (symbolizing longevity) and a book are arrayed in front of the child, and whatever he grabs for first is supposed to be an indicator of his future path. At the end of the dol celebration, the kid is left with some gold rings — a traditional first-birthday gift — or more modern toys and clothing and some formal photos.

Got a question about goings-on in the Pacific? E-mail Stacy Chandler at

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