Back to Korea
Similar in pattern to their culture, the religion of Koreans is gently
layered. That is, although many are Christians today, their Christianity
does not dispose of, but somehow rests amiably with, the traditional
"layers" of Buddhism, Confucianism, spirit worship, and animism.
Special occasions may be divided into those concerning family rites and
those which are widely celebrated holidays. The first and the sixty-first
birthdays are considered the most important and the most festive.
A child's first birthday is celebrated by dressing the youngster in bright
colors and serving treats of rice cakes, cookies, and fruits. The whole
family delights in the ceremony where the child is placed in the midst of
symbols representing possible future careers and everyone enjoys
predicting which symbol the child will grasp. For example, should he grasp
a coin, it is believed he will be a businessman. The sixty-first birthday,
especially of a man, is greeted with festive foods and much wine and
rejoicing; this is called hwangab.
Traditional weddings and funerals have recently been much simplified.
Elaborate processions, numerous guests (or professional wailers and
mourners), and huge presentations of food and wine have been reduced to
simple meaningful rituals more consistent with the times. Weddings are
most often performed amidst flowers and music in special wedding halls.
There is still a treasured tradition that requires parental approval of
the match before the wedding, and sometimes even the astute services of a
On New Year's Day (usually in February on the lunar calendar) families
surround the ancestral shrine in the home of the eldest son with plates of
fruits and cookies, rice cakes and "sweet wine" (a non-alcoholic mix of
liquid yot with the residue previously spooned off). Everyone
dresses in his or her best clothes and pays respect by bowing to the
elders in the family. Small treats of foods and gifts of money are given
to the children. Families and close friends visit one another; those in
mourning may receive visitors but do not pay calls.
Bibim-bab is a specialty dish often prepared for festive nights and
New Year's. A variety of mixed fresh and dried vegetables are individually
cooked and carefully shredded together with a beef and egg pancake; each
of the ingredients is artistically arranged on a rice bowl and is mixed
just before eating. This colorful and substantial dish becomes a meal with
soup and kimchi.
On special occasions as always, Korean children are taught to drop their
eyes to show respect, and always cup both hands when receiving any gift,
sweet, or special treat. (Koreans stare into each other's eyes only in
anger). While festive occasions are times of happy chatter, there is
always a hush when the trays of foods are served, for Koreans prefer to
give their attention to the food at hand rather than to converse while
In Korea most traditional holidays are based on the seasonal farming cycle
and the dates are from the lunar calendar. In the villages these festive
days are observed as in olden times but in the towns and cities and
amongst emigrant Koreans, the observance of the holidays varies greatly.
Some will prepare the festive foods out of nostalgia and enjoy them with
family and close friends, others will retain the ancient traditions of
ancestor tributes, while many take the occasion as a day of rest or
partying. There are few Korean homes, however, that do not keep a
traditional lunar calendar with the special occasions clearly marked.
The fifteenth day of the first month on the lunar calendar is celebrated
with singing and dancing and wrestling contests (ssirum). This is
called Taeborum or Dongsin-je. The first full moon of the
new year is called Dal-magi or Talmaji and is celebrated by
torch-light parades to the highest hill in the area to view the moon
clearly while huge bonfires are lit expressing hopes for fruitful crops,
longevity and the good things of life.
Cold Food Day or Hansik is celebrated approximately 105 days after
the winter solstice. People offer tributes of wine and cold foods near the
graves of their ancestors; later, the foods and wine are eaten by the
family picnic style. In some areas the festival is marked by tree
planting. Later in the same month some homes mark Buddha's birthday by
processions, banners, and lanterns; some shrines and homes are specially
decorated as well.
Tano is a day of sports events, including wrestling for the men,
contests of seesawing for the women, and swinging for the children. It. is
celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Those who are too
old to participate content themselves with watching and musing on the
strength they enjoyed when they were younger.
The day of the full moon in the eighth month brings the beautiful harvest
festival of thanksgiving called Chusok. Foods and wine are offered
at the ancestral shrines. Celebrations include feasting, dancing, village
bands, and much rice wine. One need not be in the countryside to enjoy and
treasure the abundance of this festival, for it is celebrated everywhere.
During the traditional period of the winter solstice, women cook and sew
while men enjoy a respite from the hard work of the fields. On Dongii,
the day of the winter solstice, foods are prepared with red beans both in
juk (porridges of rice) and in kuk (soups). Special sweet
cakes made with glutinous rice also mark the day.
Korean Christians mark Christmas in quiet family gatherings. Many attend
church services. For those living in Korea, this season is their winter,
so Koreans enjoy a "white Christmas" too.
Special and ceremonial dishes include the following: roasted chicken;
oysters, sea cucumbers; soups of beef, pork, and seaweed; grilled pork,
fish or beef dishes; fried eggs with pumpkin or dryfish; fried bean curd;
tiny boiled bean sprouts or Chinese "flower bell"; steamed rice cakes;
glutinous rice cakes; kimchi; pumpkin, flour-dipped and fried; yot; white
rice; sweet wine and varieties of wine spirits.