Chinese or Korean New Year?

A less known Lunar New Year celebration.

When one thinks of an Asian New Year festival, common associations are fiery red ornaments, fireworks, dumplings, and boisterous atmosphere — a.k.a. Chinese New Year.

Indeed, Chinese New Year is the most well known Lunar New Year festival in the East and the West. However, as much of Asia would argue, other countries also boast longstanding New Year festivities. One of such underrated New Year’s festivals is that of my home country, Korean New Years, or Sul in the local language.

Unsurprising of two nations within such close proximity, Korean and Chinese New Year traditions share many features, one of them the purpose of the festival. In both countries, people travel immense distances, often times across the country, to be with their families for the holiday. With their families, people celebrate their year of hard work, and enjoy a brief moment of rest, as more often than not the New Years is one of the only times they get time off from their busy daily lives. One would also find people from both countries exchanging pleasantries on the morning of New Year’s Day, wishing luck and prosperity for the following year. Of course, the most awaited moment of the holiday comes when the elders get their wallets and purses out: time to receive hongbao, or in Korean, sebaetdon. As much as this pocket money is useful, the gesture is a way of wishing the recipient luck and prosperity in the new year.

Some traditions though, are unique to Korean culture and Korean culture only. While the Chinese are famous for their love of fish during New Years, a Korean New Years isn’t complete without its rice cake soup, or ddukguk. Its primary ingredient a long white rice cake, or garaedduk, ddukguk’s pure white color represents health untainted by disease, and the length of the uncut rice cake symbolizes longevity. It is also said that the round shape of the rice cake when served with the soup resembles ancient coins, representing prosperity. More widespread though, is the belief that you only age a year when you have eaten your share of ddukguk. Sometimes, elders jokingly ask youngsters how many bowls of ddukguk they have had, instead of directly asking their age.

For many Korean families, New Year’s Day isn’t all about them. One of the most well preserved customs of the ancient times is the custom of holding a memorial ceremony for the ancestors. This custom, the charye, is passed down from the time of the Chosun Dynasty, where Confucianism dictated our lifestyle. Confucianism emphasizes respecting one’s elders, even after their demise, which resulted in the custom of paying tribute to them during the holidays. The modern ritual only pays tribute to parents and grandparents, yet involves multiple meticulous steps that require acute attention. My sister was able to capture the major scenes of this year’s charye:

Usually, the vast amount of food in a charye is made entirely by women, while the procedures are entirely conducted by men, which is another influence of Confucianist beliefs. This ritual is held first thing in the morning of New Year’s Day, even before breakfast, so women are required to wake up at the break of dawn and prepare the entire table full of food. Some of the dishes they cook include white rice, beef soup, fried and dried fish, fresh and dried fruits, fried vegetables, and desserts.

After all the formalities, then comes the time for games. Yutnoli is a common game played with four half-cylindrical rods and a traditional playing board. Members of two teams can move their pieces depending on what pattern the rods land in. The game generally occurs in a boisterous atmosphere, and the unpredictable nature of the game adds to the thrill and sense of family unity during the holiday.

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