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Sunday, January 1, 2012

KOREAN CULTURE: New Year's Eve

한국의 해맞이 (Korean Haemaji)

One of my childhood memories that stand out to me is of the night before New Year’s.  One New Year’s Eve, Grandma (who passed away in 1998) told me and my brother and sister to stay up all night unless we wanted to have white eyebrows.  Frightened, we did everything we could to keep ourselves awake from washing our faces with a cold wash cloth and poking our thighs with toothpicks to going outside and breathing in some fresh air and even propping our eyelids open with a match.  The heavier our eyelids weighed down, the harder we battled to stay awake. 

Eventually, we all ended up falling asleep and then woke up New Year’s morning to find out our eyebrows had turned white indeed!  Me and my brother and sister burst into simultaneous tears of fear and frustration.  We didn’t stop crying until Mom told us our eyebrows were okay and then we realized they were covered with something white.  It turned out, plastered against our eyebrows were the powdery remains of the rice cake dough Grandma had used for New Year’s morning prank.  But oh, gullibility, thy name is children!  We still had fallen for the same New Year’s morning prank for several years since that time.

Ancient Koreans believed (and even modern Koreans do) a year’s fate depends on the first day of the year.  This is why they follow old superstitions and traditions when New Year’s Day comes around each year.  The tradition of staying awake until New Year’s Day – until the rooster crows – is called Protecting New Year (수세, Suse or 해지킴, Haejikim).  People lightened up every room in their houses and around every corner with lamps and stayed awake all night to greet the first rising sun of the year.  It has its roots in the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392) and in Taoism (도교, Dogyo) which I think is so deeply ingrained in Korean culture that even a devout Christian like Grandma unwittingly pulled a Taoist prank on us. (On the other hand, Wang(2002) suggests, "A more significant reason is that many of the cultural elements in the Korean inherent culture or its primitive folk culture is similar to or almost identical with the cultural elements of the Chinese Taoism.")

The Jade Emperor (The King of Heaven in Taoism) delegated power and responsibility to three bugs (삼충, samchung or 삼시, samshi) to record all good and wrong deeds of a person.  Each and every person has these three bugs in the body (head, heart, and stomach) and each New Year’s Eve is the moment of truth.  The three bugs come out of a person’s nose while he is sleeping.  They rise to heaven to tell the Jade Emperor about the person’s sins and virtues throughout the year.  His good and wrong deeds will be weighed based on the report – the Emperor will either prolong or shorten his days on earth.  To keep the bugs inside their body so the Jade Emperor could never get the report, people stayed awake all night on New Year’s Eve into New Year’s Day.  They did fun things, such as Yunnori or Yut Nori (윷놀이), storytelling, playing fireworks, or exchanging gifts with close friends, that would keep them occupied. 

If you fall asleep, then the bugs will come out and the Emperor will know about all of your sins and your days on earth will be shortened.  This is where the white eyebrows superstition came from.  Even gray hair cannot beat white eyebrows in representing age.  They believed just falling asleep on New Year’s Eve would turn their eyebrows white since they knew no one was without sin.  Whether the Jade Emperor or our conscience is the judge of us, New Year’s Eve can be such a humbling moment to listen to the still, small voice in us that has been whispering to us for a long time.

Another New Year’s Eve tradition in Korea is that the start of New Year's Day is heralded by the ringing of historic Boshingak Bell – the bell is struck 33 times in a very slow manner until each ring all but dies away.  This tradition of 59 years is relatively new compared to the ca. 800-year-old white eyebrows superstition and other traditions like Protecting New Year, Yunnori, playing fireworks, and so on.  This year, newly elected Seoul City Mayor Park Wonsoon invited one of the comfort women survivors to join the bell ringing crew for the first time in Korean history.  This has made this year’s celebration more meaningful and memorable.

Seoul Mayor Park Wonsoon in peach pink and a 85-year old (Korean age)
comfort women survivor Kim Bokdong in mustard yellow 
strike the Boshingak Bell together to celebrate the New Year 2012.

The bell ringing event is an extremely popular family attraction and a great crowd pleaser so the nearby streets are always crowded with a massive number of people hurrying to the scene.  Every year, major broadcast television networks (KBS, MBC, and SBS) in Korea hold awards shows of their own for entertainment shows, dramas, and music for three nights until New Year.  I remember those shows were always interrupted when nearing midnight to broadcast the bell ringing live and it is still one of my pleasant memories of New Year’s Eve.  Since 2009, however, this event has been televised silent for some political reasons and this year, unfortunately, it was not aired on major broadcast television networks but only on some cable channels.  What a shame!   

YTN, a Korean cable news channel, 
broadcast live the Ringing of Boshingak Bell (2012).


On my first New Year’s Eve here in the United States, I was sitting alone in my dorm room munching on Kosomicrackers I had brought from Korea.  Though midnight kisses, champagne toasts, and watching the ball drop in Times Square on New Year's Eve are pretty much a given in the States, one, I was (and still is) allergic to alcohol, and two, all my American friends were home for the holidays and all my Korean friends were at church for the Watch Night New Year’s Eve service so I had no one to bring in the New Year with.  It was close to midnight when I thought I heard the sound of faint footsteps in the hallway.  I felt a little frightened because the dorms were almost vacant of students.  So I turned on my roommate’s little TV and the first thing that came up was a New Year’s countdown live. That night, I learned New Year's Day in the States is celebrated with fireworks at the stroke of midnight, more than once due to the different time zones.

Koreans has fired off innumerable fireworks on New Year's Eve for centuries but professional, mega fireworks used to be a rare scene and not a key part of celebrating New Year.  Over past two decades, however, they have become much more common and popular anywhere in Korea.  Fireworks events are held nationwide in all cities on New Year’s Eve prior to the bell ringing and into New Year’s Day.  (If you want to watch the following video clips in HD full screen, click on the titles on screen or double-click the clips.)

New Year's fireworks event held in Gyeonggido Province (2012)


New Year's fireworks event held in Gangwondo Province (2012)


New Year's fireworks event held in Incheon City (2012)


New Year's fireworks event held in Seoul City (Year Unknown)


The year 2012 is the year of the Black Dragon that comes once every 60 years.  The Black Dragon is the most auspicious animal of the Chinese zodiac signs and stands for the Emperor. Many Koreans are quite excited as they believe the spirit of the Black Dragon will ward off negative energy and evil forces and bring in good fortune, prosperity, and luck instead.

FYI, it’s not the year of the Black Dragon until January 23, 2012, the first day of the lunar calendar since the zodiac signs are based on the cycles of the moon.  Most Koreans consider Lunar New Year Day or Seollal much more important than today (the first day of the Gregorian calendar).

새해 많이 받으세요! (“Saehae Bok Mani Badeuseyo!” literally means "In the New Year, may you receive many blessings," thus "May your New Year be filled with blessings.") 

Happy New Year!


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