In the Marshall Islands, there is one special birthday of great importance. It’s not a 40th or 21st, but the 1st birthday. The day that marks a childs one year on Earth is called a Kemem.
Historically Kemems were celebrated because of the high infant mortality rate in these islands. It comes from the term "kemejmej" (to remember). There were no medical doctors back in the day, therefore, a baby making it to their first year was marked as the most important celebration. Especially when it's the eldest boy or eldest girl, as it’ll be the family’s first child to reach this milestone.
On the actual birthdate, family and friends come at night for a special gathering. This mostly occurs around midnight at the exact moment the clock hits the birthday hour. The child is placed on a special woven mat and everyone sings happy birthday to them.
During this gathering something called the “tōptōp” takes place, a cultural practice whereby guests are invited to take what they want to from the birthday child and their family. People can take things like shoes, chairs, the tv, phones and some rare instances even cars. Guests can even take the clothes that the birthday boy or girl is wearing. The less the family are left with after the guests leave the more generous the family is seen and labelled.
People say this is actually a modern tradition. According to the elders, tōptōp didn’t take place way back then. They would gather at the child’s home, sing, and give gifts to bless the child because he/she made it to their first year of life.
Kemems are always hosted by family. Everyone who is invited (extended family, friends and community) will be fed and entertained by the host family.
The immediate family decides who contributes what from the mothers and fathers side. From food to decorations to material. The material is a printed fabric that families usually wear as a uniform. Nowadays, if friends or extended family members want to match with the immediate family, the immediate family will reserve the material and the extended family can go purchase it themselves.
Traditionally local food would be cooked in a umum (earth oven) for this special occasion. Pork, fish, chicken, turtle, coconut crab, breadfruit, taro, and coconuts. Today more modern dishes are included. Items such as rice, potato salad, coleslaw, barbeque chicken, cakes and so on.
During the kemem, balloons, blankets, fans and other things will be hung up as decorations. These can also be used as party favours.
As for formalities, usually the pastor will begin with a prayer for both the baby and food. Then afterwards, people can start lining up to dish their food, performers start dancing, and everyone can take down the decorations to keep. The centrepieces and other items that are on the tables will be up for grabs too for those who attended and are seated at the kemem.
Usually, everyone is seated according to their weto (family land), elders and heads of families. Relatives would give speeches towards the end to say thank you. Then everyone would line up, sing happy birthday again and gives congratulations and place money on the mat. It is common to see family members with the child’s name printed on t-shirts and DJ entertainment accompanies the more traditional singing.
As kemems continue to grow and evolve as time goes on, the meaning and importance of celebrating life behind all the festivities remain the same. The day is a special one for Marshallese families to gather and show appreciation for life, especially for their little ones that are only at the beginning. The birthday child may not remember their first birthday, but with celebrations so big everyone else most certainly will.