Lunar New Year

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            Today is “Chinese New Year” but it is also traditionally the beginning of the year in Korea. This morning, we got up at 5am, got our ‘hanbok’ on, and headed out before dawn to EunBong’s parent’s house. It was too cloudy to see the sunrise, but the snow that fell in the wee hours glowed aqua blue as the overcast horizon slowly lit.

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            After we arrived, EunBong’s dad set out a small table with black offering bowls and plates. Her mom set out all the food and her dad lit the two candles and three sticks of incense. They opened the front door a wide crack to allow the spirits of the ancestors in and her dad banged on the table three times and three times again to call them in. In these ceremonies, the men bow to the ancestors, so I bowed with her dad twice while they ate. After bowing, they set some food outside the door for the spirits to take with them and we ate. Lunar New Year is similar to Korean thanksgiving (Chuseok) in that they set out a feast for their ancestors and bow to them twice. Traditionally, everyone also added a year to their age  today. Now they use the January 1st, Western New Year to measure age, though.

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            The traditional food to eat on New Year’s Day is “Deokguk”. Deok is rice that has been pressed into a stick, doughy form, then molded into tubes. For the soup, the tubes are sliced thinly on an angle and cooked in a broth with egg, beef, and dumplings.

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            After eating, EunBong and I bowed to her parents. EunBong told me to do exactly as she did, so, even though it seemed a bit different than usually, I mimicked. They all burst out laughing when I stated bowing like a girl, but I recovered and didn’t mind laughing with them. EunBong had asked me to give each of her parents w100 ooo, so after bowing, I took the envelope out of my pocket and handed it to her dad. I told them, “ban/ban,” (“half/half”) but her mom quickly grabbed the envelope, counted out w50 000, handed it to her dad and stuck the rest in her purse. We played GO-Stop for a while, a Korean card game, then EunBong’s mom set out lunch. I forced down as much as I could, still full from breakfast, and we took the long bus ride home. 

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NOTE: The New Year ceremony is not Buddhist and has nothing to do with Buddhism. I’m not sure, but I suspect it came from Confucionism, which still has a great influence on contemporary Korean life.

3 responses »

  1. It’s also similar to the Jewish Sabbath practice of setting a place at the table for the prophet Elijah. Similarly, during the Passover seder, a glass of wine is poured and the door is left open for the prophet to enter, heralding redemption; or the coming of the Messiah. As a child, I was told by my Jewish friends that the empty place at the table was to be offered to anyone who came in, to sit and share their meal. In my understanding at the time, it became associated with the Biblical parable of being kind to strangers for one could be entertaining angels unaware. I always felt privileged to be the one who was invited to take that place…

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