Wednesday, February 1, 2012

KOREAN CULTURE: New Year's Day (6)

Traditional Seollal Customs and Pastimes ❷  

8.  SEBAE (Lunar New Year's Kneeling Bow)

After the charye memorial service is over at Jonga (종가, which literally means “the head family”), lineal and collateral kin were gathered in a big room to pay their respects to the eldest family members, i.e. grandparents, then parents and other elder relatives by doing sebae to them.  Sebae is a big, kneeling bow performed on Lunar New Year’s Day, started out by the first son, then the second, and so on. 

Caleb, at age 3½ , was sebae-ing to my dad (his grandpa)
who was visiting us from Korea. (Picture taken on Jan. 1, 2008)

As you bow down to your elders, you say the words of blessing called deokdam (덕담, 德談), “Saehae bok mani badeuseyo” (새해  많이 받으세요), in which saehae means “New Year,” bok “blessing,” mani “a lot,” and badeuseyo “please receive,” and all combined, the sentence broadly translates to “I wish you lots of blessings.”  Then you will receive sebaeddon (세뱃돈, “sebae money”) as a reward.  Hooray!!!!!  Your elders (typically your grandparents and parents) are supposed to go to the bank to get fresh, crisp bills for sebaeddon, put them in fresh, crisp envelopes, and return their (grand)chlidren’s big bows and blessings by also  giving deokdam as well as sebaeddon.

Lunar New Year’s deokdam is a tradition that Koreans wish each other good luck and happiness.  The words of Lunar New Year’s blessings are as follows:

From children or young people to elders
Saehae bok mani badeuseyo
새해  많이 받으세요
“May you be blessed with lots of luck in the new year!”
Saehaee deo geonganghaseyo
새해에 더욱 건강하세요
“May you stay healthier in the new year!”
만수무강 하세요
“May you live forever!”
백세향수 하세요
“May you live forever!”
From elders to children or young people
Saehaeenun bok mani batge
새해에는 많이 받게
“May you be blessed with lots of luck in the new year!”
Saehaeenun soweon seongchwihage
새해에는 소원 성취하게
“May all your wishes come true in the new year!”
Saehaeenun janyeorul naeusige
새해에는자녀를 낳으시게
“May you have a baby in the new year!”
Saehaeenun seungjinhasige
새해에는 승진하시게
“May you receive a promotion in the new year!”
Saehaeenun donul mani beolge
새해에는 돈을 많이 벌게
“I wish you a wealthy new year.”

Caleb was happy receiving sebaeddon from Grandpa.  
(Picture taken on Jan. 1, 2008) 

There are a few rules you should follow when you do sebae:

(1) If you’re a man, lay your left hand over the top of right hand, covering it, and kneel down deep so that your forehead touches the floor, with your elbows jutted out like chicken wings, and with your eyes down. When bowing down, bend your left leg first then your right so that you completely rest on both knees.

(2) There are two types of kneeling bows offered by women:
     ● Keunjeol (큰절, “big bow”) – Lay your right hand over the top of left hand,
        covering it, and slowly raise your arms to shoulder level, with your hands folded, 
        with your elbows jutted out like chicken wings, and with your eyes down. When 
        bowing down, bend your left leg first then your right so that you completely sit 
        down criss-cross applesauce. Bow only halfway down so that your forehead does 
        not touch the floor.
     ● Jageunjeol (작은절, “small bow”) –  With your hands at the sides, with your eyes 
        down, kneel on your left leg and sit down with your right leg bent so that
        you sit on your left leg and fingers of your each hand touch the floor.  Make a
        bow at about a 45 degree angle.

Proper way to do Sebae 1

Proper way to do Sebae 2 (starting at 1:18)

When the sebae ritual is over, they eat for breakfast the foods set out on the charyesang in honor of the deceased ancestors and then go out to visit relatives and elderly neighbors to do sebae – the ancient Koreans wouldn't mind walking several miles to visit their relatives who lived far away as it was considered courteous, decent, and proper.  Guests who come to do sebae are generally offered food and alcoholic beverages and children are offered ddeok, fruits, and of course sebaeddon.

Our family friends came over for lunch on New Year's Day. 
Their children were doing sebae to my dad and their parents 
and Caleb happily joined them.  (Pictures taken on Jan. 1, 2008) 

When you visit a family bereaved after the death of their parent(s), you first go to sangcheong (상청 (), “bereavement hall”) where the tablet (i.e. the spirit) of the deceased is enshrined and grieve their loss(es).  And then, you pay your respects, by doing sebae, to the eldest and of the highest hangnyeol1 of the relatives you’re visiting, then to the eldest of the village, then to the rest first according to their ages and then according to their hangnyeol.  If you are younger but of higher hangnyeol than a person you’re sebae-ing, he/she doesn’t receive your bow sitting but has to bow back to you simultaneously.  If your extended family is really big, then you may shorten time by bowing to a whole generation, which is called hapbae (합배, “bow together”):  grandchildren to grandparents, nephews & nieces to uncles & aunts, cousins to cousins, and so on.

1.  Hangnyeol or hangryeol (항렬, 行列) is a word that defines a hierarchical relation, i.e. a generation, between collateral relatives.  All members of the same generation of an extended family share one word or syllable called dolimja (돌림자, “rotating word” or broadly “shared word”) or hangnyeolja (항렬자) in their given names.  Most of the Korean names are composed of three words or syllables:  1 (surname)-2 (1st part of given name)-3 (2nd part of given name).  Of course, there are exceptional cases where some people have surnames with two syllables (e.g. Namgung, Hwangbo, Seonwu, and so on) or others have given names with one syllable.  Dolimja comes in the fixed position for each generation:

eg 1.  SISTERS
           SNSD’s Jessica’s Korean name  (Jeong Suyeon)
           f(x)’s Krystal’s Korean name     (Jeong Sujeong)
eg 2.  COUSINS
           Actor 조형 (Jo Hyeonggi) – Actor 조민 (Jo Mingi)
● Note that the above examples NEVER mean sisters and brothers share dolimja in the first position of their given names and cousins share it in the second position.  It’s just coincidental.

My dad was bowing back simultaneously as the pastor and his wife
were doing sebae to him for the pastor is younger yet considered 

a spiritual mentor. Yeah, I know, both my dad's and pastor's hands
were placed the wrong way. (Picture taken on Jan. 1, 2008) 


All the foods that you eat, or that are set out on the charyesang in honor of the deceased ancestors or the guests who come over to do sebae on Lunar New Year’s Day, or Seollal, are called seol eumsik* (설음식, “Seol foods”) or sechan** (세찬, “New Year’s foods”) and all the Lunar New Year’s alcoholic beverages are called seol sul* (설술, “Seol drink”) or seju** (세주, “New Year’s drink”).  (Note that the single-asterisked words are native Korean while the double-asterisked are of Chinese origin or Sino-Korean.)

The haves could prepare a table full of delicious foods, but the have-nots couldn’t afford such luxuries.  There was one food, however, that every family would take for granted on New Year’s Day – garae ddeok or hin ddeok (흰떡, “white ddeok”):  Oval-shapedgarae ddeok slices were used in ddeokguk, rice cake soup.1  Wealthy families also made ddeokjjim, braised rice cake sticks, with long, cylindrical garae ddeok sticks.2  Ddeokguk is a must item on the charyesang table that is set out in honor of the deceased ancestors. After you have ddeokguk on Lunar New Year’s Morning, you soak the uncooked rice cake ovals in water and use them to make ddeokguk for guests over for sebae.

This tradition of eating “white” rice cake soup (hin ddeokguk) is thought by some to have originated in ancient Sun worship; in Korea, Seollal, the first day of Lunar New Year, starts with welcoming the rising sun; and rice cakes’ white color symbolizes the brightness of the sun and their oval or round shape is an ideograph of the roundness of the sun.  Koreans drink cheongju, refined rice wine, cold in spring and summer and warm in fall and winter, but seol sul or seju is supposed to be served cold on New Year’s Day as it means “bringing in spring soon.”

1. The idea behind this rice cake soup tradition is that rice (especially white rice) used to be hard to get in Korea, long, long time ago.  Commoners rarely had a chance to have even a single bowl of rice.  It was only for the royals and nobles.  Instead of rice, they had millet, buckwheat, corn, potatoes, or sweet potatoes in their bowls as staple foods.  Can you imagine how unusual a thing rice cakes used to be?  If you only knew how much rice it takes to make rice cakes.  It takes approximately 4.4 ounces of rice to make one 12-inch-long garae ddeok (which is also called ddeokguk ddeok because it's the main ingredient in rice cake soup, ddeokguk.  And when you think about the time and effort put into making rice cakes, it’s no wonder commoners could not afford to consume them at all but on their hwangap (60th birthday) or national holidays like Chusoek (Korean Thanksgiving Day) or Seollal (Korean New Year’s Day).

To ancient Koreans (and even to my parents’ generation or other war generation), rice cakes meant festivities and holidays while rice cake soup meant ultimate, palatable pleasures as its recipe includes such rare food items as rice cakes and beef or pheasant meat. Korean pheasant meat (ggweong gogi) was traditionally favored for making the broth as it guarantees the ultimate taste when used in rice cake soup.  When it was not available though, chicken was often substituted for it.  A famous Korean maxim, “A chicken instead of a pheasant” (Ggweong daesin dalk), is from this food custom.  Its English equivalent can be “If you can’t get a horse, ride a cow.”  Both roughly mean “When your first choice is not available, go for the second best at hand.” 

Now you may know how precious rice cake soup was considered amongst Ancient Koreans.  As it meant a lot, when older Korean generations wanted to know someone’s age, they used to ask, “How many bowls of rice cake soup have you ever eaten so far?” instead of “How old are you?”  When that someone was 50 years old, he would answer, “50 bowls” or just “I’m fifty years old now.”   But here’s a warning.  If you ask Korean kids you meet anywhere in Korea these days the same question, I’m 100% sure that they will answer, “A lot,” or just give you a duh look. (Recipe: Ddeokguk, Rice cake soup)

2. It’s been widely accepted ddeokboggi evolved from ddeokjjim.  Both ddeokboggi and ddeokjjim are considered a near-perfect food in Korea as they are cooked together with fresh herbs, dried herbs, vegetables, beef, and soy sauce. (Recipes: Gungjung ddeokboggi, Hot and spicy ddeokboggi)

My sister, RaOn, cooked for my parents on Seollal (1/23/12).
⅔ of the foods on the table was healthy vegetarian.  Yum~ 

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