USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Korean New Year’
Customs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Placing Cutlery for the Dead- A Korean New Years Tradition

Main Text

Collector: I know the your family does special acts for the Korean New Year. Would you mind telling me a few of these and what you think is the most important part for the celebration?

HK: “The most important part is that every male family member has to have a different spoon and chopstick. The spoon and chopstick represent the dead person’s utensils so that they can eat the offering of food. What my dad would do is place the spoon and chopstick to each of the dishes that he made each time so that the dead person has time to eat it.”

Context: 

I was in a conversation with Hk in order to solicit information about how her family celebrates the Korean New Year. Before I collected this piece from her she had listed out at least five other customary acts that they perform at the Korean New Year celebration at her house and to narrow it down I asked her what she believes the most important act out of the day is and she provided me with this piece. She said that she remembers this piece because it is a very emotional part in her family and since her dad is a chef, he likes to prepare traditional food and it is of great importance to him that members of his past family can relish in this meal as well to have some happiness and enjoyment after life. HK said that she likes seeing how happy this makes her father so it is a very joyful moment to share with her family which is why it sticks with her. When I asked her if she would share it with her future family she responded that it was a guarantee because she wants to teach her kids the importance of family and sharing these kinds of emotional experiences with each other, especially over a good traditional Korean meal.

Analysis: 

One of the main reasons for celebration of the Korean New Year is not just to celebrate the passage into the new year but as a way to spend time catching up with your family members as well as paying respect to your dead ancestors. Understanding that a large part of the Korean New Year celebration revolves around family and paying respect to one’s ancestors, it makes sense that the custom of setting out utensils for one’s deceased ancestors would be passed down, taught to new generations and vary between family.

Another large part of this piece that needs to be analyzed is why this part of the honoring of the ancestor is centered around food. In Korean culture, food is a way of getting one’s family together and sharing a Korean style meal keeps the family close. Traditionally, eating in Korea is done family style, where main dishes are shared and eating is considered a major social activity for friends and families. The social setting of eating such as exchanging food, taking pictures of food and even talking about food all brings people and family together, especially when eating at a restaurant. I have known many people from China and Korea who all say that a two hour wait at a restaurant is worth it because they get to spend two hours or more there catching up and socializing as a large familial group. In this explanation I have argued the fact that the tradition of placing eating utensils out for ancestors as a way to honor them on Korean New Years is culturally centered around the belief that food really brings family together in a very close and personal setting.

Another reason that this tradition will continue to be passed down is that there is a lot of history behind each dish that Korea has. Food has a distinct impact on the culture itself because of all the history and meaning behind the food that is eaten and the food that gets eaten and cooked even when away from the motherland. Korean food plays a huge part for me because not only they are rich in value and nutrients also because of their taste which is unique and the traditional foods that traced back to Korea arguably all are extremely nutritious. In a way, serving this traditional food to the dead a a way to honor them provides the dead with a sense of connection tho their family and their culture as well as a way to nourish them in the afterlife. The nutrition value of the food and the uniqueness of the textures and flavor that are employed in Korean cooking act as a way to unify one’s family and help them to continue to identify and even preserve their culture when they are away from their homeland. This cultural significance that is put on Korean dishes  in the end plays a large part in why these individuals who celebrate Korean New Years and perform this ritual continue to do so.

The final way that I am going to analyze this ritual performed on the Korean New year is through a religious lens. The main religion in Korea is Buddhism. In Buddhism, ghosts are fairly common and fully accepted, unlike what is allowed for Christians. Because many Koreans have this religious belief that entertains the existence and acceptance of ghosts, it is not so strange or out of the question that folklore involving the placement of utensils for one’s dead ancestors would be passed along and practiced today by Korean families.

In summary, the cultural stance that many Koreans share in family and in food as well as the religion practiced by many Korean individuals serve as an explanation to why the act of placing a spoon and chopsticks out for one’s ancestors is an important ritual that takes place on Korean New Years.

Foodways
general
Holidays

Recipe – Korea

“To make seaweed soup you need a large tub of water, with actual seaweed, not dried seaweed, beef stock, and a little bit of salt. Boil that for about 5 hours. That’s about it. Maybe toss in some tofu or some onion leeks, chopped up, that’s if you have them.”

Phillip told me that, since his mother is Korean, she makes this dish every year for the Korean New Year, or just the Asian New Year, because he wasn’t very sure which one it was for since he is also part Chinese. Every year, his family gets together to celebrate the New Year for dinner and one of the dishes prepared is seaweed soup. He said that, typically, Koreans will make a fancy dish instead of giving out red letters that contain money. Sometimes clothes are given as well during the New Year. Phillip believes that the reason special meals are prepared for the Korean New Year instead of money being given out is because New Year’s celebrations aren’t that big of a deal for Korean people. He said that he personally hates seaweed soup, and that he would prefer money, or at least a better dish, because seaweed soup is really nothing special. The reason that seaweed soup has become a traditional dish in his family is because when his mother lived in Korea, her family did not have much money and the best that they could come up with was the seaweed soup for New Years. Phillip thought that it was actually really depressing, that his family still makes such a simple dish that reminds them of a time when they didn’t have money.

From my view, it seems logical that the reason that the reason such a simple dish is made every year for Phillip’s because his mother’s family did not have much money back in Korea. Seaweed soup seems like it is a very simple dish, and it doesn’t seem to have much significance or any special connection to the new year as Moon Cakes do for the Chinese Moon Festival.  This is also supported by the fact that the rest of his family’s New Year celebration isn’t very elaborate, and doesn’t include the exchange of clothes or money. His family must have just continued to celebrate the New Year in the same way as they did in Korea as a result of habit.

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