How To Perform A Korean Jesa Ceremony
Seollal (설날), the Lunar New Year, has come and gone and with it, most likely, a jesa (제사) ceremony for most Korean families.
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Jesa (제사) ceremonies are performed to honor the ancestors that have come before and paved the way for those that live today and the Lunar New Year is one time during the year that almost everyone partakes in the memorial rite.
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 (Korean Thanksgiving) and Seollal (Lunar New Year).
- 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.
The oldest male heir of a household holds jesa to honor his family. This means that my husband, who is an only son, would honor his father and his father’s father when it is his turn to hold jesa. Currently, my husband’s father is still alive so, we go to his house to hold jesa and we honor my husband’s father’s father and his father’s grandfather and his father’s grandfather’s brother because his father’s grandfather’s brother had no male heirs. Technically only men are allowed to hold jesa which means that if my husband’s father’s grandfather’s brother had had a female heir, she would not be able to hold jesa for him because presumably she would have married into another family and would be honoring her husband’s family which is how we came to honor his father’s grandfather’s brother as well during our jesa ceremony. Jesa is passed down through the oldest male heir/relative and that’s the easiest way to remember, put simply. That is also one of the reasons that having a son has traditionally been so important to families. My husband is now the third generation in a row to have only one male heir to carry on the tradition so it is important for him to learn and continue to honor his line for his ancestors.
The jesa ceremony has many parts. The first thing to do is prepare everything and set the table, which I covered in a previous post. After the family members have been cleansed (taken a shower) and dressed in clean clothes and set the table, the ceremony itself can begin. If you’re in a traditional Korean family, the waking and showering will happen at the crack of dawn. I can’t say if it’s a part of the rule, but according to my husband, no one can eat until AFTER the ceremony is completed so the earlier you wake up, the earlier you can eat.
How To Perform A Jesa Ceremony
The first step is gangsin (강신), or to call the ancestors.
The host of the jesa ceremony called the jeju (제주), in our case my husband’s father, kneels before the set altar to light a stick of incense. This is to invite the ancestors to the table. The jeju’s wife or next of kin then pours a cup of the cheongju (청주), a liquor like sake, and hands it to the jeju who makes a circle over the incense three times and then pours the liquor into a bowl with sand. The entirety of the cup is poured into the bowl with sand in three pours, that is to say that the whole cup isn’t dumped in at once, instead it is tipped in in three parts. The incense is lit to call the ancestors from above and the liquor is poured to call the ancestors from below. After the cup has been poured out, it is passed back from the jeju to the person that poured it who then sets it on the table in front of the altar. The jeju rises and bows twice all the way down to the floor to end the first part of the ceremony.
The second step is chamsin (참신), or greeting the ancestors.
Everyone in attendance will bow to the altar two times. Traditionally, men would bow two times while women would bow four, but these days generally everyone bows twice together. Remember, the left hand should always be atop the right hand when bowing down to the floor.
The third step is jinchan (진찬), or serve the ancestors.
The rice and soup are served to the ancestors. You may notice in the pictures that there is no rice on this table. That is because for Seollal, the Lunar New Year, the soup is usually tteokguk, which is a rice cake soup so there won’t be rice served with it. For Chuseok (추석) there is usually rice served with a soup called tangguk (탕국).
You don’t do all of the ancestors in one go, it’s done by generation. In our house we first do my husband’s father’s parents. There are two of them so two bowls of soup are set out for them.
The fourth step is choheon (초헌), or pour the ancestors a drink.
The jeju kneels before the altar and holds a cup with two hands while the wife/next of kin pours the liquor into the cup. The cup is circled over the incense three times and then placed next to the bowl of rice and soup. Another cup is taken and the same thing is done for the other ancestor being honored at the table. The two people stand and walk back to then bow along with the other members twice before once again approaching the table. Before the next step, the cups are taken off of the table by the wife or next of kin and circled once again over the incense before being poured into a nearby bowl. The cups are then placed back on the smaller table in front of the altar.
The fifth step is aheon (아헌), a second drink is offered.
The procedure is the same as choheon.
The sixth step is jonghun (종헌), a third drink is offered.
The procedure is the same as choheon once again except that this final cup is only filled about 70% of the way.
The seventh step is yusik (유식), offering food to the ancestors.
The spoon is placed in the rice bowl sticking straight up with the concave side of the spoon facing east or it is placed in the bowl of soup with the handle end pointing toward the west. Chopsticks are placed on different dishes on the table as if the ancestor would be enjoying that dish especially. Two bows follow.
The eighth step is hapmun (합문), allowing the ancestors to partake in peace and quiet.
Technically, everyone except for one person would leave the room. Men would leave out of the east side and face west while the women do the opposite. These days many families just allow a moment of silence for this step instead.
The ninth step is gyemun (계문), the doors are opened.
The descendants wait in silence until the jeju coughs three times to let the ancestors know they are coming back in. My family just has a moment of silence before continuing. There is no coughing.
The next step is removing the rice and soup.
A bowl of water is brought to the table and the jeju takes three spoonfuls of the soup or rice into the water as if the ancestors had eaten. In our family, we bow twice once again, but according to everything I’ve read, just a moment of silence before the jeju coughs once again is necessary before removing the bowls of rice and soup.
At this point, if you’re remembering all ancestors at once, you’d move on to the final step, or if you’re like my family, the table is set again and we honor my husband’s father’s grandfather and then his father’s grandfather’s brother. We do three rounds total of the third step through the tenth step listed here. Yes, that means triple the number of bows you just counted in the steps above.
The final step is sasin (사신), or saying farewell to the ancestors.
Everyone would bow as they had during chamsin in the first step. The papers that have the ancestors names written on them are then burned and everyone in attendance sits down to feast on the food.
It’s best to remember that families are different and with each one comes different traditions and ideas that are passed down. Don’t get bogged down in the rules. The more important thing is that we are together and we are saying thank-you to those that came before us. Jesa isn’t about worshiping ancestors, it’s about thinking about those that preceded and remembering where we came from. My own grandmother does her own version every year as she places flowers on the grave of her deceased husband back in Ohio. Aren’t we all so much closer than we tend to think?
I hope everyone had a wonderful Lunar New Year wherever they were and that we all take the time to think about our past, our family and where we’ve come to get where we are today.