Flashback 24 years ago: My mother-in-law was not too happy when my baby grabbed a lump of soil from the plate in front of him. She had hoped that he would instead reach out for a big, colorful book that she had placed among many other items. Rather than him bonding with the land, she nurtured the dream of him being an erudite scholar! For reference, it was my son’s Annaprasana. Of the many birth rituals followed in India, this is a ceremony that I have always seen being celebrated in a grand way in my home state of Assam.
Understanding the tradition calls for a dive into etymology. “Annaprasana” is a Sanskrit word in which “anna” means boiled rice and “prasana” means feeding. So it is a ceremony where a baby is introduced to solid foods like rice for the first time. An auspicious date is selected for the event, and although the infant is obviously too tiny to enjoy the delicacies, friends and relatives are treated to a sumptuous feast. Annaprasana is usually carried out when the child is six to eight months old with an odd month being picked for a girl and an even one for a boy.
Going back to the story where my little boy picked the brown dirt, the act was related to an interesting game that is played during an Annaprasana ceremony. Several objects are kept before the child, and it is believed that whichever item the baby first picks is an indication of his or her future career.
It is up to the family members what items they place. But among the things that are commonly kept are a pen symbolizing wisdom, a book that stands for knowledge, soil which represents property, and gold which signifies wealth. This is a game that everyone enjoys watching. So in recent times, in order to accelerate the fun and reflect the new age of technology, people have started adding even stuff like cell phones to see if the child is attracted to those gadgets!
There is obviously no sound logic behind this game. No way it can predict one’s profession in the future! It simply provides a few entertaining moments. Now, what is interesting is the fact that I happened to discover that quite a few nations do something very similar although it is done on the child’s first birthday!
The Birthday Grab Across the World
Prevalent since dynastic times, Zhuazhou is a first birthday coming-of-age ritual in China that foretells the future. In an interesting article titled “Chinese First Birthday Marks Cultural Rite of Passage”, Zhantao Yang makes a point that while some of the symbolic items are easy to understand, for others, it mandates a proper understanding of the Chinese language and culture to comprehend the emblematic significance. For instance, if a child grabs a stethoscope, it is visibly indicative of a medical career. If he or she picks a calculator, it could mean a career in the sciences. However, to an outsider who is not knowledgeable about the Chinese ethos, it will not be easy to guess that if a child picks a celery stick, it will hint at a hardworking nature or that picking a green onion will speak about one’s intelligence.
Coming to Korea, the custom of picking an object to predict a child’s path in life takes on the name of Doljabi. On similar lines, the Japanese too take a peek into their child’s future with the first birthday tradition of Erabitori. Every family can have their own choice of objects that they use in their daily lives.
The symbolic meaning of certain items like a book, a pen, or money is pretty obvious. If a baby in Japan lifts a chopstick, it signifies that he or she will be a chef or foodie. But certain interpretations go deeper. The Koreans sometimes keep a thread which, if picked, means that the baby will have a long life. Again, grabbing food means they will never be hungry. Over time, there has been a change in the items placed because society has become aware of many successful occupations that have evolved.
Tracking down a similar tradition beyond Asia
We are inclined to draw an inference that the fortune-telling custom exists in many Asian countries owing to cultural similarities in their way of life. However, this ritual is not confined to Asia alone. I was intrigued to find Armenia and the island country of Malta following similar traditions. I will not be surprised if there are others too that play this game!
Agra Hadig is a teething party that the Armenians celebrate. The child is made to sit on the floor, and objects symbolic of different fields are arranged for the grab.
The Maltese tradition of Il-Quccija dates back to the eighteenth century and is still an integral part of the first birthday celebration. In the past, items placed before a child were gender-specific, assigning separate professions for boys and girls.
For a girl, the list entailed things like a pair of scissors representing a future seamstress. The choice of a ribbon meant that the girl would be a beauty. And if she picked an egg, it was believed she would have a big and prosperous home.
The items that were kept in front of a boy stood for totally different vocations. An inkstand could be identified with the career of a lawyer or a magistrate, or a geometry instrument meant that the boy would be a future architect or engineer. In present times, however, this differentiation is not made, and the same items are placed before girls and boys.
Looking for a reason to explain the commonality in traditions across the world.
What could be the reason that this fortune-telling tradition is followed by so many different nations? This can be explained by falling upon the concept of cultural universals. Anthropologist George Murdock, while researching systems of kinship around the world, arrived at the finding that cultural universals exist among mankind. There are patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies. Cultural universals revolve around the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter and also involve human experiences like birth and death or illness and healing. Murdock recognized the importance of humor too as a universal medium to ease tension and create camaraderie among people.
To quote Donald Brown from his book, Human Universals, human universals comprise “those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exceptions”. And this tradition of trying to predict a child’s future can be considered to fall under the idea of belief, which qualifies as a cultural universal.
All parents wish for their children to do well in life. It is this investment and interest in a child’s future that makes parents be so inquisitive — this is a universal trait that transcends culture.
Rashmi Bora Das is settled in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA. She has written for various platforms including Women’s Web to which she regularly contributes. You may visit her at www.rashmiwrites.com.