Sunday, January 29, 2012

KOREAN CULTURE: New Year's Day (5)

Traditional Seollal Customs 

Ancient Koreans brought in lunar New Year with clear mind and clear body.  On the morning of Seollal (lunar New Year’s Morning), they looked back on memories of their deceased ancestors and held memorial services called charye (차례) to pronounce their eulogy, to reciprocated their ancestors’ affection for them, and not to forget where they were from.  Ancient Koreans believed (and even modern Koreans do) a year’s fate depends on the first day of the year, so they told fortunes and horoscope of the year on Seollal.  They prayed for the peace, well-being, and abundance of the food crops, and drove away all the evil spirits and misfortunes by observing superstitions and customs on lunar New Year's Eve (seoddal geumeum) into lunar New Year's Day (Seollal). Traditional Korean customs on lunar New Year’s Day include:

1. BOKJORI (복조리, Ladle-Shaped Strainer of Blessings)   

Jori, a traditional Korean bamboo strainer

Ancient Korean moms used a kitchen utensil called jori (조리), a ladle-shaped strainer made of bamboo pith, for every meal, everyday to separate the seeds of grain, especially rice, from the husks, straw, and tiny stones that might be in it when they washed it.  It was a must item in their kitchens for they didn’t have the kind of technology we have now to make a sack of rice beautifully machine-dehusked.  When I was very, very little, my mom had to use jori as well whenever she cooked rice, but hers was a plastic strainer (something like this but was green), not made of bamboo pith – a change made for the worse, just for the sake of convenience not for health.  I still vividly remember me standing in awe right next my mom watching her magical hand movements as she was separating only rice from the husks and stones using jori, and not to speak of that horrible, most unpleasant feeling of a teeny-tiny stone (that was still left in separated rice) cracking in my mouth in the middle of deliciously munching bap(), cooked rice.

In ancient Korea, rice meant everything that was good.  It was considered the “cream of the crop,” which was (and still is) crucial to the daily diet.  Accordingly, the utensil that was used to pick out rice was considered special, too.  They believed if they bought a year’s supply of joris on Seollal, blessings – along with joris – would come upon them; the sooner they bought them, the more blessings would come.  Thus, when it was just a bit past midnight, right after another fresh new year arrived, they could hear peddlers yelling a tout, “Bokjori!  Bokjori!”  When a lady of the house heard the tout, instead of going out, she let the peddler in for it would bring in more blessings. After she bought a year’s supply, she placed coins or a thread in a pair of Bokjori and hung them on the wall just above the anbang1 door, or in the kitchen, or up in the corner, or in daecheong,2 or on the front gate.  Nowadays, joris are made from stainless steel or plastic.

        A pair of bokjori hung on the front gate
   1.  Anbang (안방) literally 
    means “inside room.”  Its 
    Western equivalent might be 
    a master bedroom except 
    that during daytime, a lady of 
    the house spent the time in 
    anbang while a head of the 
    house stayed in sarangbang 
    (사랑방) which may translate 
    to “office/den.” Nowadays, 
    some families use anbang as a
    daytime family room for family
    members or as a living (and
    sometimes dining) room for 
    2.  Daecheong (대청) is a main 
    hall of the traditional Korean 
    house, hanok (한옥).


Ancient Korean people collected loose hair after combing in a comb box.  They thought their bodies were inherited from their parents thus tried not to harm or cut any part of their bodies – not even hairs or nails. And they also believed a living person’s soul resided in his entire body, head to toe, and even hair to nails.  Such Confucian thinking and superstitious belief led to a tradition of burning their year’s loose hair on lunar New Year’s Eve, or seoddal geumeum.  In doing so, they believed their loose hair would get out of the hands of evil so they would stay healthy year round.  Sometimes, ladies made a pin cushion with their year’s loose hair instead of burning them (Picture).


At the dawn of New Year, ancient Koreans wandered out into the streets to tell their own fortunes by hearing the first sound of an animal.  If one hears a magpie chirping first, it is considered auspicious for starting a new year; it foretells luck, abundance, happiness, financial gains, and so on.  If one hears a sparrow chirping instead, it is a sign of bad luck, bad harvest, and so on. This tradition is called cheongcham (청참, 聽讖) which literally means “hearing the fortune.”


On New Year’s Day, Dohwaseo, the Royal Painting Institute, presented paintings of Suseong Seonnyeo (수성(壽星) 선녀, “Fairy of Australis”) and Jigilsinjang (직일신장(直日神將), “Spirit of the Day”)1 to the king.  Dohwaseo’s royal artists also painted portraits of two Taoist Generals, Geum Jangun and Gap Jangun,2 both clad in golden armors and holding giant axes.  Those two portraits were hung up on both sides of the palace gate.  The first kind of paintings are called Sehwa (세화(歲畵), “New Year’s Painting”) and the second are called Munbaedo (문배도(門排圖),3 and rooted in Dogyo (도교, “Taoism”) as they were painted to wish health and longevity and or hung to ward off the evil spirits. 

All the houses of princes, princesses, and other royal relatives imitated this royal tradition by hanging Munbaedo on their gates. Those paintings included a portrait of a dragon, a tiger, Noja (노자, “Laozi”), or a fairy boy carrying bulocho (불로초, “herbs of eternal youth”) on his back.  It was to ward off the evil spirits such as the spirit of smallpox and the spirit of death, and disasters or misfortunes, and to bring in blessings.  The tradition soon spread to the commoners and they used a portrait of a dog, a rooster or a tiger, both of which were considered auspicious by the ancient Koreans.  Plus, a zodiac tiger represents January of the lunar calendar.

1.  Suseong (수성(壽星) is Australis which was believed to be the home of the Taoist Supernatural Being of Longetivity.
2.  Geum Jangun and Gap Jangun respectively translate to the General Gold and the General No. 1; hence their names imply they are the best of all.
3.  In the word Munbaedo (문배도(門排圖), mun (, ) means “gate/door,” bae (, )  “ward off,” and do (, ) “painting/drawing.”

Examples of Munbaedo

5. SEOLBIM (설빔, New Clothes, Shoes, and Accessories for lunar New Year)

Ancient Korean people of all ages, of all classes, and both sexes got up early on New Year’s Morning and got all dressed up in new clothes, hanbok,  with new shoes and new accessories, which are called seolbim (설빔).  They usually wore these clothes until the fifteenth day of the lunar New Year.  In order to make new clothes for all family members, a lady of the house prepared new fabrics in the early fall of the previous year and made beautiful pieces of new clothing with her own hands.  Korean men’s hanbok clothes were made in white fabrics while those of little children and single girls were made in various colors and types of fabrics – little girls wore multi-colored striped sleeves, i.e. saekdong jeogori (색동저고리, Picture).  Noble or upper class men wore leather shoes (gatsin, 갓신) or hemp shoes (mituri, 미투리) and ladies wore silk shoes with flowers embroidered (ggotsin, 꽃신) or hemp shoes with flowers embroidered (ggonmituri, 꽃미투리) while lower middle or working classes, men or ladies, wore straw shoes (jipsin, 짚신).  Then they started carrying out charye (차례), full memorial services for their deceased ancestors, all clad in seolbim.

A picture from the movie “The Untold Scandal”: ladies and a man
Pictures from the movie “The Untold Scandal”:  ladies 
Pictures from the movie “The Untold Scandal”: a nubile girl

Pictures from the drama “The Princess's Man”:
a little girl in saekdong jeogori and a nubile girl


Early on New Year’s Morning, lineal and collateral kin gathered at Jonga (종가, which literally means “the head family”) to have a memorial service for deceased ancestor(s). (Jonga is a family of past, present, and possibly future generations of first-born sons.) And after that, each family gathered at their first son’s to have their own memorial service for their lineal deceased ancestors.  The service is held in daecheong(대청), a main hall of the traditional Korean house, hanok(한옥) or in the biggest room of the house. 

First, byeongpung(병풍), a traditional Korean folding screen, is set up facing north, then jesasang(제사상), a table spread with food and drink for the deceased ancestors is placed in front of the screen.  Sinju (신주, 神主) is either glued up on the screen or placed on the table.  Sinju is a wooden tablet on which the name of the deceased ancestor is inscribed and it is also called sinwi, wipae, or mokju.1 

1.  When a person holds something very precious, near and dear to his heart, Koreans describe it as sinju mosideut (신주 모시듯, “as if he was enshrining sinju.” Shinju is a name tablet of a deceased person and is very cherished by his descendants.  A person A’s shinju is handed down to his firstborn great-great grandson and after that is buried in his tomb.  But you shouldn’t confuse this expression with another that has the same meaning – sinjudanji mosideut (신주단지 모시듯, “as if he was enshrining sinjudanji,”in which danji is a small earthen jar. 

The ancient Koreans believed there was a spirit reigning in each and every corner of the house – one spirit per spot.  They enshrined seongju, a spirit that protects the house itself, in the highest place of all.  Seongju was believed to command other inferior spirits of the house and to be in charge of the harmony and peace of the family of the house.

Grain seeds especially rice, were considered a golden or sacred food by the ancient Koreans, majority of who derived their livelihood from agriculture.  Accordingly, the earthen jars used to contain the grain seeds were considered as sacred as the spirit of the house.  Those jars were called sinjudanji or seongjudanji and used to store the first rice crop of the year until the next spring for seeding.

The following is a basic set of rules for setting the table:

1st Row
Spoons & Chopsticks, Rice
ddeokguk (left), wine (right)
2nd Row
Beef, Fish, Vegetables
fish (east), beef (west)
3rd Row
fish (east), vegetable (middle), beef (west)
4th Row
Jerky, Herbs, Rice Punch
fish jerky (left), rice punch (right)
5th Row
red fruits (east), white fruits (west)
(left to right) jujube – chestnuts – pears

Growing up in a Christian home, I was never able to participate in or even watch the charye service happen with my own eyes.  The first thing that caught my little eye, whenever a Korean drama on TV depicted a scene of an ancestral memorial service, was the creamy white honey pastries, yugwa, and the candies specially made for the occasion, okchun.  They were sort of forbidden foods in my Christian family that I had always dreamed of eating during my childhood days.  I’m a grown-up now and not a big fan of sugar, so these goodies are not tempting any more... well... okay, maybe yugwa is still tempting... a little?


Dosoju (도소주, 屠蘇酒) is a New Year’s beverage that everyone in the family drinks after the charye service is over.  The words do (, ) and so (, )respectively mean “kill” and “awake” and ju (, ) means “drink,” and combined, the word dosoju translates to “a drink that wards off evil spirits or catches ghosts.”  The ancient Koreans drank the beverage to stay healthy year round and live longer.  It was written that if one drinks dosoju, then a whole family becomes immune to smallpox; and if a family drinks the beverage, then the whole village becomes immune to it – irin eumji ilga muyeok, ilga eumji ilhyang muyeok (일인음지 일가무역 일가음지 일향무역, 一人飮之 一家無疫 一家飮之 一鄕無疫).

You can home brew dosoju very easily – (1) Put Korean bellflower roots, Korean pepper, siler divaricatum root, Korean atractylodes roots, cinnamon, and Korean orange rind into a hemp bag; (2) place the bag in an earthen jar filled with water or in a village well (to make the herbs infused in well water for all the village people), and set aside for 12 hours; and (3) remove the bag from the jar or the well and put it in a pot filled with cheongju (청주, “refined rice wine”) and boil it several times and cool off.  The herbs have released their beneficial components to cheongju and most of the alcohol in it has been evaporated.  Now we have almost non-alcoholic dosoju that even a child can drink for health.  Since it was boiled with herbs, dosoju is full of flavor and light gold in color, and tastes a little sweet.

Right after the charye service is over, a whole family of all ages and both sexes sat down facing east, which is the direction of the rising sun thus a symbol of bringing in New Year, and shared dosoju.  Contrary to the usual tradition of jangyuyuseo (장유유서, 長幼有序), in which jang (, ) is “grown-up,” yu (, ) “child,” yu (, ) “exist,” and seo (, ) “order,” and combined, the expression literally means “There’s an order between grown-ups and younglings.”  It may translate to “The elders are to be served first,” or more broadly, “The young people should respect the elderly for their age.”  But when you drink dosoju on New Year’s Morning, the youngest starts drinking it first, then the next youngest, and so on.  Hong Seunghun, the professor in Herbal Medicines of Wonkwang University, explains that it might have been a token of celebration for children getting one year closer to the adulthood on New Year’s Day.  He says it might have given young people a chance to learn to drink properly, which is called judo (주도, the art of drinking”).

This tradition of drinking dosoju came from China to Korea during the Silla Dynasty (57BC~935AD) and prevailed nationwide during the Goryeo Dynasty (918~1392).  It was enjoyed only by a select few during the Joseon Dynasty (1392~1897), however, and almost completely forgotten during the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910~1945). Given that the tradition also was transmitted to Japan through Korea, it’s quite ironical it is still alive in Japan.


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