This story was told to me by my friend who had come from Korea recently. It was the day right before Seollal and I wanted to know more about how it was celebrated in Korea. He had experienced this tradition every year for all of his life, and he had learned most of what he did from his parents and grandparents. In telling me how they celebrated the New Years and “Thanksgiving,” he also informed me of what it meant to him personally. He said that he believed these properly reflect how you should be thankful to nature and to your parents. Both of these holidays involve filial piety in that you honor your parents and the ones who came before you. You thank them for providing for you, and you thank nature for being bountiful as well, providing for your own needs. He believed that these holidays were also a very unifying time. Families come together during this time period to talk about anything and everything, catching up on the latest family gossip or simply asking how other people were doing. Family is an essential part of his life, and so anything that helped strengthen the bonds that family made were exceedingly important to him.
Chuseok is a traditional Korean holiday. It is celebrated on August 15th according to the lunar calendar. As a result, its date moves around from year to year according to the calendar that we use. It can be considered as the Korean equivalent to Thanksgiving, but it is also very different. Chuseok is a holiday that is meant to celebrate the newly harvested grain. It celebrates that the earth had been fertile and provided so much grain that everybody could have food for the following wintertime.
It is a very important time when it comes to family. There is a three day holiday from work, and everybody is not expected to do anything work related. Everybody goes back to their hometown from wherever they are. So what happens is that in order to celebrate, people leave on their first day off to drive back to wherever it is that they came from. It is such a big holiday, that there are even special buses that are meant for taking people back home. However, because everybody is going back to their hometown to visit their family, the traffic is really bad. It is well known that the traffic jams are impossible to the point that it takes up to 20 hours just to move from city to city. It doesn’t matter to the people though. Regardless of how many people or there, or how long it takes, people will work their way just to get back to their families.
When you get back home, you must reunite with your family. Traditionally, you will eat dinner together and talk about your lives while you have been apart. Or if you have been living together the whole time, then you talk about what it is that you appreciate most and be cheerful. It is usually a very lively party. Everyone will make a Korean dish called songpyeon. It is a dessert, and is essentially a sweet rice cake filled with different fillings. Some are made with eggs, others are made with sesame seed paste, and some are just made with sweet filling. It is a family event, and usually everybody will learn it from their grandmothers. After they make it, everybody will come together to happily eat it. It is a very enjoyable time, and will also end up being a way to wish for revitalization for the land so that it may be “fertile” once again, and that good fortune will come for the following year.
Earlier in the day, the family will go the grave mounds where their ancestors are buried. They will clean the mound by trimming the plants around it and making it look presentable. Then they will hold a ceremony that will honor the dead, hoping to placate the spirits that guard the family and have them continue to bestow their blessings. They will usually offer food up to their ancestors, and some of them will provide pleasures that their ancestors enjoyed during life. However, the placement of the food is ultimately very important. Rice and soup are placed on the north side while fruits and vegetables are placed on the south side. On the west are the meat dishes, and on the east are the drinks. They do vary from region to region, but otherwise it is pretty consistent. Some people light cigarettes and leave them in a dish nearby. Others buy liquor and pour it all over the burial mound. All of this is done in order to respect the dead.
Around dinnertime, before or after the eating, there are usually games that are played. One notable one is Ssireum, which is essentially Korean wrestling. It happens between two people, and the winner is determined based on who can push the other one out of the ring. People also have archery competitions. However, this tradition is only for the men. The girls traditionally play much more childish games, and do not really do more active things. The most noticeable thing for girls in this holiday is a dance called the Ganggangsullae. The name has no meaning; it is just the phrase that follows the verse from the song that this is danced to. Essentially, the girls of the village will hold hands and dance around in a circle. They will wear their traditional Korean clothes called hanboks, and they will just circle around singing Ganggangsullae. With all of these festivities though, the people will simply enjoy their time together and get to know their families even better.
Seollal is the Korean New Years. It is also placed according to the lunar calendar. It changes dates quite often, but it is usually around January to February, in line with the Chinese New Years. This is the other big holiday in Korea where people will go back to visit their families from wherever it is that they may be staying. Another three day holiday is provided to the people so that they are able to do so.
The customs of Seollal are very similar to those of Chuseok. The family will again go back to the burial mounds of their ancestors and take care of them. They will snip away the weeds and make the grass growing on top of the mounds look presentable. They will talk to the dead ancestors and make their wishes for a good afterlife for them. They will also provide food set in the traditional manner for the dead as well.
The food of Seollal is very traditional. People will eat rice cake soup, which is usually prepared with meat, rice cake, egg, and seaweed. This recipe will vary regionally, but at the very least, the rice cake part will be included. According to Korean tradition, people turn gain a year at the new lunar calendar year. They are one when they are born, and become two when Seollal occurs. However, they only gain a year if they eat the rice cake soup. That is why every year, people at it so that they can gain a year of age.
Children will be very traditional and wear traditional clothes that are called hanboks. They will bow to their parents, grandparents, and elders. They will wish them blessing and a long life with the phrase “새해 복 많이 받으세요,” which means “I hope you receive many new blessings for the new year.” The bowing is very traditionalized, as the children will first get on their knees and then bow, putting their head to the floor. Then they will get back up on their knees, and then stand one again. As a reward for the children’s filial piety, they usually receive money in beautiful money pouches. Inside the money pouches are also contained sayings and phrases that are meant to instruct the children to live moral lives, but that has become less popular in the recent days.
Then everybody plays games. The girls will play on a seesaw. Rather than sitting on it, two girls will stand on the ends of it. One will jump, and then the other girl will be launched into the air. In falling back down, the first girl will be launched into the air. It is a very amusing game, and that is how they spend their time. The boys would play jegichagi, which is very much like hacky sack in America. Once that is done, everybody will play Yutnori together. Yutnori is a board game that involves throwing sticks. You move your pieces around the board in a circle to try and make it to the finish line. However, there are two teams. Each team takes turns throwing sticks, and depending on the way they land, you must move a certain distance. If the other team throws a number and lands on the exact same spot, then the first team’s piece is taken off the board and they must start over again. It is a race to finish, as each team usually has 4 pieces. If it is not racing to finish, then it is a race to catch the other team to make them start all over again. It is a friendly competition between family members, and usually the winning team will get a monetary reward.
These holidays are celebrated very differently in America than they are in Korea. In America it’s much more relaxed and less focused on the family. Knowing that this still exists in Korea is actually very meaningful. I had wanted to celebrate the holidays with my own family, and we do—but it is not as important to us as it is to them. In addition, this also seems to reflect the religious nature of Korean people. The idea of honoring the dead ancestors is a very Confucian ideal. Personally, my family does not celebrate that part of the holidays because we are Christian and we believe otherwise. I definitely respect these holidays for being such a unifying factor between families and even between Korean people as a whole.
This appears in a children’s book:
Miller, Jennifer A. South Korea. Minneapolis: Lerner, 2010. Print.