Seollal, Through Foreign Eyes
By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
Lunar New Year's Day, or Seollal, is just a few days away, but excitement is in the air. Department stores are bustling with activities, as shoppers purchase gifts for families and friends. Everyone is making plans, whether to go back to their hometown, visit relatives or take a trip abroad.
Seollal, Korea's biggest holiday, falls on Feb. 7 this year. Holidays start from Feb. 6 and run through the entire weekend.
The word Seol means a new day ``to be careful," or ``to be discreet in one's behavior," according to the book ``Seasonal Customs of Korea'' by David Shaffer.
``It is believed that good fortune for the entire year depended on what happened on the first day of the New Year. As such, people wished to ward off evil spirits and attract good fortune by being appropriate in thought and behavior on Seollal," Shaffer said.
Korean families perform the ancestral rites of charye and seongmyo; and seibae, which involve full bowing before older family members, on Lunar New Year's Day. Family members traditionally wear a hanbok or traditional Korean dress during these activities, but the practice is becoming less popular.
Charye is a ceremonial rite to honor deceased ancestors with special food and wine placed in front of the ancestral tablets at home. Family members must bow in front of the tablets. Seongmyo is the same as charye, except the ceremony is done at the family's gravesite.
Seibae is a full kowtow bow that children make before their parents and grandparents. They place their hand and forehead on the floor as they kneel down. After they bow, the children would receive money or fruits as gifts from their elders.
Koreans also eat tteokguk, or rice cake soup, during New Year. Tteokguk is a soup with oval-shaped rice cakes, eggs, leeks and thin slices of beef.
``The preparation and partaking of this soup represents a greeting of the New Year and a rebirth of all things. ... The cord-like white rice cake used in making tteokguk implies new birth or the beginning of a New Year, while the slicing of this rice cake into round discs, in the shape of coins, signifies a wish for wealth," Shaffer said.
Foreign Wives on Seollal
Seollal is traditionally a holiday spent with one's family. For foreign nationals who are married to Koreans, Seollal is an interesting time to experience traditional customs and feel closer to their Korean family.
Jeff Schulman, an American married to a Korean, said he is looking forward to spending the holidays with his wife's family in Seoul. He has learned to appreciate the unique Korean customs during Seollal.
``The filial piety is a very interesting thing to observe and participate in. It somewhat difficult to understand from an occidental perspective, but I took the time (to understand it) and now have an appreciation for the traditions and customs," he said.
Seollal-related activities take a lot of time and effort, especially on the part of women. Women have to prepare for the charye and cook the food to be served to visiting relatives.
Some foreign wives, who are married to Koreans, associate Seollal with the hard work involved in preparations.
Jasmine Lee, a Filipina who has been married since 1995, still remembers celebrating Seollal with her husband's family for the first time. She felt overwhelmed with all the preparations involved, especially since she was the only daughter-in-law in the family at that time.
``Three or four days before Seollal, we had to prepare everything for the charye. We had to cook a lot of food because my family's relatives, around 40 or 50, all come to our house during Seollal,'' she said. Many relatives visit their house because her husband and father-in-law are both the eldest sons in their clan.
Lee noted that the women do practically nothing but cook, wash the dishes, clean and serve food to the men during the holidays. ``There was no time to bond with the family. All we did was cook and serve the food. Especially since I was the youngest in the family, I had to work hard. The men have it easy, since they just sit and eat,'' she said.
Over time, the family gatherings during Seollal have become easier for Lee as she got used to the preparations. ``I can appreciate it more now. It's a rare opportunity for extended family members to see each other,'' she smiles.
Jian Zhou, who teaches Chinese language at a school, said that Lunar New Year's Day celebrations in Korea are different from what she experienced in China. While both Koreans and Chinese tend to go back to their hometown during the holidays, there are no ceremonial ancestral rites.
``All the cooking for Seollal is very hard. We don't do that in China. Although Seollal is similar to Lunar New Year's Day, we don't have jesa (ancestral rites). We just eat, drink and play,'' Zhou said.
Wenalyn Shin, also from the Philippines, agrees that Seollal is a very tiring time for women because of all the cooking preparations.
Indonesian Yanuarika Maya Puspitasari is still quite excited about spending her first Seollal in Korea. Her husband, Jung Seung-hun, said they would be celebrating the holidays with family in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province.
``We will pay our respects to my ancestors. Then, we will eat tteokguk with the family. There will be no drinking or eating pork, since we're Muslim,'' Jung said.
Seoul Turns into a Ghost Town
Most expatriates living in Korea consider Seollal as a chance to take a much-needed break from work.
Old-timers suggest avoiding travel during Seollal because of the huge traffic jams on the highways and crowded airports, not to mention having to pay peak season rates for overseas flights.
There are ski tour packages for the Lunar New Year holidays, geared toward foreign nationals, offered by Ztravelbug (www.ztravelbug.com) and Adventure Korea (www.adventurekorea.com).
Many prefer staying in Seoul during Seollal since it practically deserted, with no crowds or traffic jams. The only downside is that most of the shops, restaurants, department stores and cinemas are also closed, especially on Seollal day.
Alfonso Delgado, an accountant who has been working in Seoul for three years, said he is looking forward to joining in the traditional Korean games held at royal palaces in Seoul, and take photographs of the colorful activities during Seollal.
``Traveling around Seoul will not be a hassle during Seollal as most of Seoul's residents are either in the provinces or outside the country. Seeing friends, shopping or sightseeing will always be fun to do here,'' he said.