A kemem, the celebration of a child’s first birthday, is one of the most important Marshallese celebrations. Historically kemem’s were celebrated because of the high infant mortality rates – when a child made it to one years old the whole community came out to celebrate. It is great pride and responsibility for a family to host a kemen. Everyone who is invited (family, friends, community) will be fed and entertained.
The immediate family decides who contributes what from the mothers and fathers side. Families prepare what they can and notify relatives what they need them to bring so nothing is missing. Decorations of balloons and lights are strung up as are new baby clothes – after the pastor says the prayers, everyone can take the clothes. Clothes can even be taken off the child itself. The disappearance of the birthday clothes is a sign that they child will have good luck in life.
Traditionally local food would be cooked in a umum (earth oven): pork, fish, chicken, turtle, coconut crab, breadfruit, taro, and coconuts. Modern times local food would include rice, potato salad, coleslaw, fried chicken, spam, and cakes.
On the day of the kemem, everyone is seated according to their wato (family land), elders and heads of families and relatives give speeches, preachers say prayers. Individuals sing and dance to entertain at the party. The child is placed on a special woven mat and everyone sings happy birthday. Everyone in attendance lines up 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; viewing of pictures on slide shows and DJ entertainment accompanies the more traditional singing.
References: Bernice Joash. Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands = Mour ilo Republic eo an Majõl. by Marshall Islanders; edited by Anono Lieom Loeak, Veronica C. Kiluwe, and Linda Crowl; translated by Veronica C. Kiluwe, Maria Kabua Fowler, and Alson J. Kelen. 2004. pp 53-55.