How To Set The Table for Jesa
Seollal (설날), or the Lunar New Year, is almost upon us!
The three day holiday officially begins today and that means that more than half of the country will be taking a trip. Be it by car, train, bus or plane, most families will be headed to their hometowns or where the eldest member of the family is residing. Once they arrive, preparations will get underway, if they haven’t already, so that everything is ready when morning comes on Seollal. One of my favorite parts of the holiday is partaking in the ancestral rite known as charye (차례). This ceremony can be confusing to newcomers, but if you’re interested in Korean culture and traditions, it is definitely something you should take the time to learn about.
Many foreigners confuse the terms charye (차례) and jesa (제사) when talking about this holiday and what they will watch or partake in.
Actually, jesa (제사) is an all encompassing term for any memorial ceremony for the dead. There are a few different kinds of rites that fall under the term of jesa (제사) and they include: charye (차례), gijesa (기제사), sije (시제) and myoje (묘제).
- Charye (차례) ceremonies are held on major holidays like Chuseok and Seollal.
- Gijesa (기제사) ceremonies are held once a year on the anniversary of the death of the person being honored.
- Sije (시제) ceremonies are held every season.
- Myoje (묘제) ceremonies are held at the grave.
As it is Seollal, families will gather to partake in a charye (차례) ceremony. This ceremony may honor paternal family members up to four generations back though in 1973 in an effort to reduce the amount of money being spent on rituals the government recommended that families honor just two generations back. These ceremonies are passed down among the male heirs of the family so my husband will honor his father and grandfather and so on in his household whereas his sister will honor her husband’s father and grandfather and so on. This can be a bit more confusing when there is no male heir in a household and then in the simplest terms, it would skip over to the closest male be it a cousin or uncle, etc. That’s extremely simplified though, there would be a bit more information necessary to figure out which household would need to honor the family then. Jesa is a way to thank our ancestors for what we have received and to remember them at the same time.
Let’s Talk Table Setting!
On Seollal, before anything else, family members awake very early to cleanse themselves and dress in nice clean clothes. They may even wear a Hanbok, a traditional Korean style of clothing. Next, the table will be set. The table setting varies from region to region and family to family, but there are some basic rules that are followed everywhere.
To begin, set up the screen to the north and then the table will be placed in front (to the south) of it. On the side of the table closest to the screen, the shinwi (신위), which is the “spiritual body” of the ancestors, namely a piece of paper with their names written in Chinese characters, sits in the center with candles flanking it.
In the first row of food closest to the living who would be sitting opposite the ancestors, there would be fruits and desserts.
Commonly, dates, apples, Korean pears, chestnuts, persimmons and jujubes may be placed in the front row but don’t just place them willy-nilly. Red foods should be placed on the east end of the table while white foods should be placed on the west. So, apples would be on the east with the jujubes while the Korean pears would be on the west. Other cookies and desserts can be in the front row as well but, again, the color of the food should be taken into account when finding an appropriate spot for it. In my family a few years ago they discussed how the outside of the apple was red, but the inside was white. They decided placing the apples more central in line was appropriate because of that. Basically, there are some standard rules, but don’t be so strict with yourself. The more important part is the ceremony and not having exact placement of everything on the altar table.
The second row back, behind the fruit, would contain different dried fish and cooked or fermented vegetable side dishes.
There may be tofu here as well as cod, squid or other fishy delicacies. If a fish is included on the table that has a head, the head should face the east with it’s back facing south so that it would look right side up to the ancestors on the other side of the table. Again, red foods would be on the east so that would include most meat while white foods, which include fish would be on the west end of the table. How much meat or fish is on the table varies widely among the regions of Korea. In our house, for example, we have more fish on our table because my husband’s family is from a coastal area. My friends in the north usually have more meat dishes on their table instead.
The third row back would contain soups and bigger protein dishes.
The final row on the table, closest to the ancestors contains a bowl of rice and a bowl of soup for each ancestor being honored.
The bowls of rice should be piled high to look like a mound over the top of the bowl. The rice bowl should sit on the west side of the rice on the east side, so the rice should be on the left with the soup on the right when you look at it so it is correct if the ancestors were looking at it. The table can have as few as two or three rows of food or as much as five or six as again, it is up to the family.
Once the table has been set, and possibly a discussion with a few members in your house as to whether or not everything is correct as often happens in my husband’s house, a smaller table is set up in front of the altar of food. Cheongju (청주), similar to a sake, is placed on that table to be used during the rite. Also necessary to begin is incense and an incense bowl packed with sand.
Happy Seollal, or Lunar New Year!
새해복 많이 받으세요.
(Sae-hae bok manhi ba-deu-sei-yo)