The New Year Started on January 23!
I arrived in Korea after a month away and immediately, after stopping home to unpack and pack again, took the KTX down to Busan to have my first Lunar New Year with my new Korean family. The Lunar New Year is a major holiday in Korea where families travel long distances to their hometowns to pay respect to their ancestors. This year it fell on January 23. In years previous, this holiday was met with glee about having a few days off from work and knowing that most Koreans in Seoul would go to their hometowns meaning the city would have an oddly deserted feeling about it that I’ve come to enjoy. This year the feeling was more of dread that I would do something causing my new family to laugh at me and curiosity in seeing how Jae-oo’s family celebrates holidays together.
We arrived on the eve of Lunar New Year so the food had already been prepared. We went to bed, mostly due to jet lag, and let dreams of bowing dance in our heads. The next morning when we woke up and after showering and getting dressed in clean clothes, necessary to enter into the ceremony, Jae-oo and I helped his mother set the altar table. There seemed to be some confusion about where things went so I googled a picture on my phone and found that in Busan they have a lot more fish than was showing up in these pictures. Once we’d set the table, Jae-oo’s dad came out and he re-set the table the way he thought it should go.
From what I gathered it seems the table should be set up so it’s facing the north. The food should be placed with the red food on the eastern end and white food on the western end, meat on the eastern end and fish on the western end. This varies from family to family and as I’ve learned through discussion with others the food that is even on the table can vary. My friend in Seoul had more meat and less fish on his table, but our family is from Busan so it makes sense that there would be more fish since they come from a coastal city.
For our family the charye ceremony, a Confucian rite, was for 7 ancestors spanning three generations on Jae-oo’s father’s side. First, ddeokguk, rice cake soup was placed on the table for each ancestor with a spoon pointing toward the west. Two people would go up and kneel at the table. One person would pour and one person would hold the cup. Rice wine was poured and then waved over some incense making a circle three times starting toward the west before being placed on the table, one cup for each ancestor. Then we would do two full bows. The second round was the same as the first. After the rice wine was emptied into a bowl and filled once again we bowed two more times. In the third round water was placed on the table near the ddeokguk and three scoops of ddeokguk was taken out and placed in the water for the ancestors. The soup and the water along with the spoons and chopsticks would be removed as if the ancestors had taken part and their rice wine cups would get a last pour before we did two more full bows.
We did this process three times, one time for each generation. Again, this can differ from family to family and generation to generation and even Jae-oo said his family can do it differently from year to year if his dad so decides.
Finally the papers with the ancestors’ names written on them are taken outside to be burned.
Once the charye ceremony is complete the food is eaten by the family members along with the all important ddeokguk. According to tradition on the Lunar New Year all Koreans age one year, but to do this you much first eat the rice cake soup. I’m currently two years older than my “real” age. I should have eaten less ddeokguk.