How to Say Happy Birthday in Korean
The clock strikes midnight, and already you feel a little bit different.
That’s right! It’s your birthday, and you know what to expect based on your own culture and upbringing.
But now that you’re studying Korean, you’re probably curious about how Korean folks might have their own birthday bash.
In this post, I’ll go over how you can wish someone a happy birthday in Korean, plus some special birthday customs you should expect.
- How to Say Happy Birthday in Korean
- How to Sing the Korean Happy Birthday Song
- How to Celebrate Korean Birthdays
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How to Say Happy Birthday in Korean
How you say happy birthday will largely depend on who you’re saying it to. Understanding the relationship you have with your conversation partner is a big deal when it comes to talking in Korean.
1. 생신을 축하드립니다 (seng-shin-eul chook-ha-deu-riep-ni-da)
This is a formal way of wishing someone a happy birthday. The ending of 드립니다 may have already clued you to this, if you’re familiar with how wording can greatly matter in Korean etiquette.
It’s appropriate to use for your elders or those in a higher position, such as your boss or teacher. You could alternatively say 생신 축하드려요 (seng-shin-eul chook-ha-deu-ryuh-yo), but I’ll admit it’s a little difficult to pronounce the 려요 part!
2. 생일 축하합니다 (seng-il chook-ha-hap-ni-da)
This is likely the most common “happy birthday” phrase you’ll hear. It’s polite in tone and appropriate for most occasions, whether you’re using it for acquaintances or those older than or close to your age.
Note the difference in the wording compared to the more formal variant. 생일 literally translates to “birthday” (생 meaning birth, 일 meaning day). 생신 is a more respectful way of saying birthday.
You may also say 생일 축하해요 (seng-il chook-ha-heh-yo). It too is polite in tone (evidenced by the presence of 요), although I’d say it’s a bit less formal than 생일 축하합니다.
3. 생일 축하해 (seng-il chook-ha-heh)
This is informal in nature and is appropriate for your friends and casual acquaintances around your age or younger. Notice the lack of honorific language in the phrase–it implies that you don’t have to be so uptight or respectful to the birthday boy or girl.
4. 생축 (seng-chook)
This is a slang variant that is just a greatly abbreviated version of the typical “happy birthday” phrase. You may see it in text or online.
Another abbreviation you might encounter is 생일 ㅊㅋㅊㅋ, read as seng-il choo-ka choo-ka. It’s common in Korean social media to simply shorten familiar phrases into singular Hangul letters.
Since this is slang we’re talking about, you should reserve these specific “happy birthday” phrases for friends or online pals.
How to Sing the Korean Happy Birthday Song
You’ll be pleased to know that it’s actually very simple to sing the happy birthday song in Korean.
You only have to know two phrases.
The first is 생일 축하합니다, which we’ve already discussed to be the formal way of saying “Happy birthday.” Even though this is the phrase of choice, the song is appropriate for pretty much everyone: young, old, friends, acquaintances or strangers.
The second phrase is 사랑하는 (우리) ________ (씨), which means “Beloved (insert name)”, with the option to include 우리 before the name or 씨 after the name:
- 우리 means “our” and is typically used for close friends and family members, especially if they’re younger.
- 씨 is a basic Korean honorific that you may want to include if the birthday person deserves a little more respect (such as your workplace senior).
With those two phrases, the format of the actual song goes like this:
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
사랑하는 (우리) ________ (씨)
Happy birthday to you
Sing it to the same tune as “Happy Birthday to You” (yes, the English one you know by heart) and that’s it. It’s that easy!
Sometimes, the song can include a few extra lines (such as in the video above), though they can vary a lot depending on the context. However, you’ll more often hear just the simple two-phrase song.
How to Celebrate Korean Birthdays
All right, so you know how to sing the song. Now what’s there to do after you’ve belted it out?
Korean Birthday Customs
In modern times, Korean birthday celebrations don’t look much different from Western ones. A cake, some presents and a fun get-together are the usual expectations.
Kids may have a party with their family members and friends, while older folks may celebrate at home, a bar or a restaurant. For the latter, it’s likely that plenty of alcoholic drinks like 소주 (so-ju) will go around the table.
It’s possible that a birthday falls on a date on which most celebrants would be busy. This is a common occurrence, especially for teenage students who have to study for tests. Celebrations can then be pushed to happen a few days later, preferably on a weekend.
To really follow tradition, birthday persons may also eat the seaweed soup known as 미역국 (mi-yuk-gook). This hearty, nutritious dish has a history of being a food frequently consumed by expecting pregnant women. It therefore has a strong connotation to birth and health, making it a fitting choice as a birthday meal.
Since Korean culture has a lot of fascinating traditions, one of the best ways to find out more would be to watch Korean dramas, movies, and even vlogs. For learner support, you can get to know cultural tidbits and useful expressions with FluentU’s authentic Korean videos. These have interactive captions, plus flashcards and quizzes for new vocabulary.
For instance, if you watch a lot of Korean videos, you might know that there’s a different way of counting a person’s age in Korea. Here’s how it works…
The Korean Aging System
Let’s say you meet a Korean person who was born on May 12, 1990. So, on May 13, 2023, you may cheerfully say to them “Hey! Congratulations on turning 33 years old!”
Well, you may get a surprising response: they might correct you and say they’re actually 34 years old. Ask them again on January 2, 2024, and they’ll proclaim they’re 35 years old.
Are Korean people somehow aging at supersonic speed? No, they’re not, but they are following different rules when it comes to determining their age.
According to Korean culture, you’re technically considered one year old the moment you’re born. This is sensible, since you were “alive” for nine months in the womb, which is close enough to a year.
Furthermore, you actually age up a year right at New Year’s, on January 1.
This means that in Korea, a person’s age can be one or two years older than they would be considered internationally. If you’re wondering how this works, then you can quickly calculate your own Korean age.
So what then is the point of celebrating the actual birth date? Well, the day you were born is still an occasion worthy of joy, never mind the technicalities of when one is actually considered a year older.
If you’re worried about incorrectly assuming a Korean person’s age, don’t be. Most Korean folks won’t make a fuss if you get their age wrong by a year or two.
A Korean Baby’s First Birthday
A very special birthday celebration takes place when you turn an impressive one year old. It even has its own name: 돌잔치 (dol-jan-chi). Alongside a big party with family members and guests, one-year-old babies have an important job to play in their own festivities.
The toddlers will be dressed in a special traditional 한복 (han-bok), plus a cute little hat. They may be seated before an impressive spread of Korean food that includes plenty of colorful rice cakes known as 떡 (tteok) and fruits.
But then, the child will be presented with a curious arrangement of what appear to be miscellaneous items. The item options are usually decided by the parents, and they typically include something like a bowl of rice, a pencil, a book, thread, money bills and more. Modern variants can include items like a smartphone, a computer mouse, a sports ball and so forth.
At some point, the baby may grab at or show interest in one or two items. Whatever is chosen is said to symbolize a specific fortune. For example:
- Choosing a pencil: the child will gain strong writing and or academic skills
- Choosing a paintbrush: the child will be artistically gifted
- Choosing money: the child will become rich
- Choosing thread or yarn: the child will live a long life
- Choosing a food item: the child will not go hungry
Modern items follow a similar system of fortune-telling. For example, a child picking up a computer mouse can suggest they’ll be nifty with technology.
This fun and exciting event, called 돌잡이 (dol-jap-ii), gives loved ones a chance to imagine a bright future for the baby of the hour.
Apparently, for my 돌잡이, I grabbed at a pencil with one hand, while my other hand was firmly grasping a piece of 떡 (and remained so for most of my party). The 떡 itself didn’t actually have a symbolic meaning. But seeing how I love to write and love devouring 떡 even now, I suppose my fortune-reading was quite accurate.
A Korean Person’s 60th Birthday
Reaching the age of 60 is also considered a special occasion.
If you’re familiar with the Chinese zodiac, then you might know why. 60 years is the marker when you’ve reached a full cycle of your zodiac lifespan, so that the calendar again points to the same zodiac signs under which you were born.
Most Korean folks are well-attuned to their zodiac. In the past, just like how it was good fortune for a baby to reach their first birthday, it was also considered momentous for one to reach the ripe old age of 60 (61 in the Korean age system). Celebrating this occasion is known as 환갑 (hwan-gap).
It’s typical for the birthday person’s family to throw them a memorable party. Alternatively, the individual can opt to go on a nice trip with their loved ones.
There are also some who don’t choose to celebrate their 60th. Instead, they may save more lavish festivities for a more “impressive” birthday like their 70th, 80th or even their 90th.
Korean birthday customs have both familiar and unique features. They’re another fun and worthwhile aspect of Korean culture to learn, alongside your Korean language studies.
So bust out the cake (or 미역국) and start the celebrations!