A child’s first birthday is a very special occasion for all families. Our family will have the added excitement of getting to celebrate a tradition special to the Marshallese culture from which our daughter comes. As I’ve written before, our daughter’s birth family is originally from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, an island nation in the northern Pacific, which is part of the larger group of islands known as Micronesia. From the moment we knew we’d be adopting a child from a different culture, we knew we’d do all we could to learn about, embrace and honor the customs and traditions of that culture. As our daughter’s first birthday rapidly approaches, we are preparing for our first wonderful Marshallese tradition.

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For the Marshallese a child’s first birthday is marked with a grand celebration known as a “kemem”- a party which can be even greater in scale than the Sweet 16s, Quinceaneras and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs we’re all familiar with. Historically, the cause for such tremendous celebration of a 1-year-old was that the infant mortality rate was so high. For a child to thrive through their first year of life was reason for the whole community to rejoice and give thanks. The infant mortality rate has greatly improved over time, but the tradition of the kemem has endured. The huge, wonderful party was just too good to give up.

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Our daughter’s kemem will not be simply in name or spirit alone. We will be traveling back to her birth place to share this incredibly special celebration with not only her birth family, but the whole community, making the occasion doubly special. This commemoration of her first year will also be our first reunion with her birth family. There is sure to be lots of laughter and tears, music and dancing. And without a doubt there will be much rejoicing and thanks for the amazing first year of our daughter’s life and the amazing culture we now have the privilege of getting to be a part of.

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3 Responses to 1st Birthday! An Adoptive Family Celebrates a New Tradition

  1. Grace says:

    Such a great blog! :) It’s nice to know parents have different ways of celebrating their child’s birthday…. :)

  2. Hannah says:

    Our adopted Marshallese daughter turns 1 in May! This is so inspiring, but we cannot afford to travel to be with her birth family.
    Do you have any suggestions on how we can be inclusive and honor Marshallese traditions where we are?
    Congratulations on your beautiful girl!

  3. mjosephs3 says:

    Hello Hannah! Please forgive my long overdue response! Firstly, congrats on your adoption and for wanting to honor and celebrate your daughter’s Marshallese traditions! There are some things that are part of every kemem, the Marshallese 1st birthday celebration. In no particular order: there are always t-shirts made and given to attendants and/or a banner made with the child’s image and a birthday message; there is always lots of music (traditional Marshallese music); there is always a “receiving line” where all guests say hello, give hugs & kisses and dollar bills (or whatever they can offer) to the parents for another year of health and happiness. You could certainly incorporate any or all of these in a celebration at home!

    But even if you do none of these things, I would encourage you to honor Marshallese traditions and heritage by educating your guests. We also had a 1st birthday party at home and we told everyone about the Marshallese tradition of the kemem. We had an atlas out so everyone could see where the Marshall Islands were. (I have to confess. Before our adoption I’d never heard of the Marshall Islands.) We shared details about our relationship with our daughter’s birth family and their culture. I bet a lot of people who love you guys are curious about adoption in general and about your adoption of a Marshallese child specifically, but might not be sure how to ask.

    I’d also like to make you aware of a Facebook group I’m part of “Adoptive Families Preserving the Marshallese Culture”. It is a closed group, so just send a message to request participation. I love hearing about what other families know. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me again personally too! All the best and more!

    Cheers,
    Melissa

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