Seollal (설날, Korean New Year)

Photo Essay by Charles Wetzel

Despite having lived in Korea for about 3.5 years of my life, I don't think I'd ever partaken in the charye (차례) ritual of Seollal (Chinese [Lunar] New Year) before yesterday, when Yumi, my language exchange partner, was kind enough to invite me to her parents' house to partake in the charye ritual. Her parents prepared a ton of great food, we offered it to the ancestors first, and what they didn't claim, we ate!

We played two Korean traditional games, made some ddeok and some mandu, and had a very interesting day overall (at least for me, who's new to this). Yumi and Romy (exchange student from Germany) got a number of pictures on Romy's nice digital camera. So thanks to them for taking the pictures and sending them to me. I hope you enjoy reading in great detail about Seollal.

1. This is the jesa table (actually two tables joined together), set for the jesa ritual. What is jesa? Well, jesa is, to put it bluntly, an ancestor worship ritual practiced widely in Korea on Korean Lunar New Year, as well as on Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving), and then there are individual jesa during the year to commemorate the individual deceased ancestors (the jesa for them is held on the day each respective one passed away). Jesa practiced on myeongjeol (명절, special days) are called "charye." There is some common sense to the ritual -- Mr. Hwang, the eldest son in his family (and therefore responsible for the ritual) admits that it is mainly a ritual for the well-being of the people partaking in it more so than for the ancestors. In this case, seven ancestors are being remembered, and they span four generations. If you want to commemorate ancestors who go farther back, you should go and visit their graves in the mountains. This is usually done on Chuseok. The setting of the table is a very intricate process. For example, when putting the spoons in the bowls of rice for the ancestors, one must poke the rice with the spoon three times -- two pokes, and then, on the final poke, plunge the spoon into the rice so it stands somewhat upright. You stack things like chestnuts and Chinese dates on the pedestals as high as you can, and the orientation of the jesa table is important, as well. In this case, the Chinese characters are facing the south side, and even the placement of food on the table is determined according to the cardinal directions.
2. The candle is lit, and jesa begins. People bow to the display that has been set up -- this is called a keunjeol (큰절, big bow). You bow all the way to the floor or almost to the floor, as you would in a Buddhist temple. If you're a man, you put your right hand over your left hand, and if you're a woman, you put your left hand over your right hand. The master of ceremonies is the oldest son -- for this reason, jesa are generally not held in the house of unmarried women, which is why I did not do jesa last year with Mijung.

Anyways, you wait about ten minutes for the ancestors to take what they want of the food on the table. Then each person picks the food they want and eats it. It was recommended that I take the soft persimmons, so I did, and wasn't disappointed.

3. Then a great deal of the food is moved to the dinner table. We had quite a feast! I made bibimbap and had some myeolchi (tiny fish). It was an excellent meal, followed up by nokcha (green tea). Keep in mind, the proper way to eat nokcha is to pick up the class holding a few fingers from one hand under it to prevent spillage, and sniff the aroma of the tea -- then drink it. It clarifies your blood and reduces your cholesterol, supposedly.
4. There are at least two games that are regularly played on Seollal. One of them is yunnori, or yut (played with four sticks, smooth on one side and round on the other). Depending on how they fall, you can move your pieces around the board by x amount. I got a good laugh, because when nobody was looking, Yumi's older brother, the quiet, devious type, took one of the sticks and put it in the dog's mouth. Then everyone was like "How'd that dog get that yut stick? Bad dog!"

The other game is called "Hwatu," or the flower card game. It is known in Japan as Hanafuda and has lots of card combinations, so it is similar to Poker. I'll admit, I didn't even begin to grasp the rules or the scoring, because I had only gotten an hour or two of sleep and wasn't in the learning-new-games mode. Which led into the next activity of the Seollal day...

5. Ddeok slicing! Yes, that's right, you take long sticks of ddeok (made from rice powder, some say it tastes somewhat eraser-like) and slice it into thin pieces, for ddeok soup. You must slice the sticks at a slant, with perhaps a quarter of an inch of thickness to each slice. If they're too thin and look like they're nearly-depleted bars of bathroom soap, that's a bad thing, because you're cutting them too thin, and not on enough of a slant. Mine are apparently pretty much perfect -- Mrs. Hwang was very happy with my job and called me a "pro." I joked something to the effect of "Haha, I'd do this for 3,500 won an hour!" Mrs. Hwang joked back that that's like something a migrant laborer from a poorer part of Asia would do, and said that actually, they have machines to do that, but if you cut it yourself, it's considered tastier.

By the way, here are the people in the picture: Mrs. Hwang, Yumi, (유미), and me.

6. See how I sliced that ddeok? That's how you want to make it!

When you have a small piece, you can eat it, or you can feed it to the dog. Yumi's dog likes ddeok. Wow, that's a dog with broad tastes!

7. Here's a tray of mandu (dumplings with a filling that is, in this case, kimchi-based) put together by Yumi, Romy (woman from Germany studying at Yonsei KLI), and I. Basically you just stuff some stuffing into the mandu wrapper and close it "ggok ggok ggok" ("tightly, tightly, tightly," says Mrs. Hwang). Otherwise it will come open in the mandu soup.

Anyways, that was Seollal, pretty much. Yumi's parents loaded me up with lots of goodies -- three packages of nokcha containing 25 tea bags each (!), yakgwa (Korean confection made with honey), and bananas, as well as sebaetdon (세뱃돈, money given to young people, usually the children, when the children bow to the adults and say "Receive much New Year's happiness!" and "Be Healthy!").