In the past, the lack of knowledge in hygiene and difficulty in accessing food made it difficult for babies to survive after birth. Because of this, the first birthday was seen as a major milestone. While other special birthdays represent a transition from childhood to adulthood, the first birthday represented a confirmation that the child would live. Modern medicine and easier access to food made infant deaths less frequent, but many still continue this tradition of making the first birthday more significant than other birthdays.
Colin, my new baby cousin, is quickly changing before my family's eyes. It seemed like yesterday he was constantly sleeping in my aunt’s arms. He recently celebrated his first birthday. As my family prepared for his party, I recently found out there is a tradition that’s not only common in my family but in a few Asian cultures that celebrate first birthdays -- the birthday grab.
The birthday grab goes by many names: Thôi Nôi in Vietnamese, Doljanchi in Korean, Zhuā Zhōu in Chinese and Erabitori in Japanese to name a few. The tradition is usually performed by Buddhist families. It goes back to the Song Dynasty in China. Though many countries today adopt Western traditions like blowing out a cake and giving gifts, some families still practice the birthday grab for their children’s first birthday. The tradition these days is more of an event but in the past it was seen as a potential look into a baby’s future. The tradition has a few variations but all versions follow a similar procedure.
The 1 year old birthday baby is given a bunch of items. Whatever they hold onto the most will represent what they will become. Sometimes the baby gets a few more chances of choosing a different item to show what other potential futures they will have. In the past, the items the baby can choose from depended on their gender -- female babies were given items like jewelry and male babies were given items like swords.
Throughout history, the items commonly seen in a birthday grab come and go because of new available career paths and changes in social norms. Things like mobile devices are seen as potential items, while things like a sword are not commonly used. Some items that used to be reserved for one gender can now be an option for both. The items the baby can choose from are ones that are already in the house and can be used for the tradition. Most of the time, the item that the baby chooses represents their potential career path like doctors or fashion designers.
Some items represent what the baby will consider to be important in the future. However, any of them can be interpreted in any way depending on the person. For example, a dollar bill can be interpreted as a baby becoming a successful business man or a greedy individual who prefers material wealth. The items are often put on a tray in front of the baby. Some have the items displayed on the ground and have the baby crawl towards them. Overall, these items are usually ones that can be found around the house and safe enough for the baby to handle.
In many cases, the birthday grab is the center event of the party. Sometimes parents do a “practice run” with their babies by doing the grab at home so they can be familiar with what to do. Guests cheer on the baby to encourage them to pick something. Some of the party guests bet with one another to see who correctly guessed which item the baby will choose. In the end, everyone wonders what the baby will find interesting and whether the baby’s choice really predicted the future.
Modern first birthday parties often mix western practices like blowing out the cake and playing themed party games. Some serve certain foods that hold a symbolic meaning to the first birthday. Often, the first birthday is a rather formal event due to its significance, so many guests dress rather nicely for the occasion. Large venues can be booked if the people planning the party consider it. Of course, how grand the first birthday is depends on the budget of the family.
The birthday grab is only reserved for the first birthday. Many older generations still believe that the tradition truly determines what the child will become in the future. Because the items can be interpreted as many things, guests often have many ideas as to what the baby might become based on what they chose. Most of my family simply does it for fun, and often joke about the results. We know that a simple pick by a 1 year old does not guarantee a predestined future.
Sometimes, my parents or older relatives talk about past birthday grabs and compare the choices to where the baby is now. When I asked my mom what I grabbed onto for my first birthday, she told me that I grabbed a pen -- which initially disappointed her. She wanted me to be a doctor and wanted me to grab the doctor kit instead. I completely ignored the kit and kept on holding on to the pen. That probably explains why I'm here writing articles and creating stories in my spare time.
I guess there is some prophecy with the birthday grab.