Sseulnal (설날) is the Korean Lunar New Year and national holiday that we typically just celebrate on January 1st for simplicity’s sake. Me and Grandma prepare the ingredients for the jesa (제사) like always but instead of the usual assortment we go with the traditional ddeukguk (떡국) or rice-cake soup. Only when you eat rice-cake soup on New Year’s Day is how you “gain” an age in traditional Korean folk-belief, representing the full passage of a year.
The informant is my mother who has prepared rice-cake soup on January 1st for the past 40 years and continues to practice many Korean folk celebrations primarily because she enjoys traditional food as well as having been practiced in her own family life when she was younger. It’s also special to her because she abhors eating Korean food in restaurants and always prefers cooking them personally.
On New Years I asked my mother again the significance of the rice-cake soup was on New Years compared to all the other foods she usually prepares on a jesa (제사).
Despite the whole concept of gaining an age through this particular folk custom, my family still practiced the conventional birthday celebration when the question of age comes up. With how impoverished Korea used to be, many greetings exchanged between people were “Have you eaten yet?” to make sure the other party was in good health and this leads me to believe that surviving a year and celebrating together with family was an incredibly dire and daily traditional element back in the day to make sure everyone had something to eat and live to see tomorrow. There is also another similar food-item consumed during New Years as an auspicious symbol to consume during New Years in Japan called Zoni.
It had just occurred to me through this project that I questioned on why my parents are insistent on keeping these traditions alive as many other Korean families we know of do not celebrate traditional holidays anymore, at least not in the way they’re “supposed” to as most treat this as a holiday from work and an excuse to go vacation under the disguise of “visiting family”. My parents bring up how surprised they are to hear how dysfunctional other family’s relationships are between parents and children not getting along and how this traditional time for family gatherings are often spent alone and away from them.