Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sol-nal - Korean New Year

You might have noticed that many of the nations located in East Asia threw big New Year celebrations to welcome the arrival of the year 2000. It is true that most countries have adopted the Gregorian calendar and mark the passage of time in accordance with the solar year. But many countries, the Republic of Korea included, also pay respect to the traditional calendar based on the lunar year. Thus, across the Land of the Morning Calm, New Year's Day will be celebrated twice-once according to international convention, and once according to the lunar calendar.

This year, the Korean New Year, or Sol-nal, will fall on our February 5, the first day of the first month of the new lunar year. Also considered the first day of spring, Sol-nal is a day for renewing one's place in the world by honoring ancestors and reestablishing family ties. Koreans try to return to their family homes on this day to participate in New Year's rituals and festivities.

On New Year's Eve, people place straw shovels, sieves or rakes on their doors and walls to protect their families from any evil spirits arriving with the new year. The New Year's day ceremonies begin in the morning with the donning of formal dress (hanbok) by family members. The first component of the day's activities is the rite of charye, or the honoring of the past four generations of ancestors. Food and drink (the exact form of which varies according to regional and family traditions) are offered on a ritual table (charye sang). It is common to see foods arranged according to color (for instance, red food may be on the east side of the table, with white food on the west side of the table). Typically, the food is arranged in the order that it would be eaten during a meal--fruit is placed closest to the living supplicant, to be eaten last (as a dessert) by the ancestral spirits. Rice would be placed on the opposite side of the table as the living, to be eaten first by the ancestors.

Incense is burned, and the living bow before the ancestors in order of family rank. The eldest male makes two deep bows, then a third shallow bow, offering the food and drink to the spirits of the ancestors. The rest of the family follows suite according to rank. It is respectful to turn away from the offerings after this, allowing the ancestors to enjoy the feast without interference. Then the food is cleared and water is offered up.

After this act of reverence is completed, it is time to pay one's respects to the living elders of the family (saebae. This takes the form of younger family members bowing deeply to the elders, first to the grandparents, then the parents, then the uncles and aunts. The bow is accompanied by the New Year's greeting "Sae-hae boke mahn-he pah-du-sae-oh." Usually, the elders give something to the people offering saebae: food, money, drink or something similar. In the old days, these rituals would have been performed door to door, but in today's Korea, family is quite spread out, so Sol-nal offers a family a good excuse to travel back home.

Finally, it is time to sit down to the traditional breakfast, a meal which almost always includes ttok-guk. Ttok-guk is a thick beef broth with thinly sliced rice cakes that have been topped with green onions and other colorful garnishes. Some people eat ttok-guk mandu guk instead, which is ttok-guk with mandu dumplings. Tradition dictates that this food must be eaten in order to turn one year older. This is very important as Korean age is calculated on the New Year. Everyone becomes one year older on New Year's Day.

The rest of the day is dedicated to play, especially for the children. The boys in particular take to kite flying, while the girls see-saw. A favorite game for the day is yut nori (a stick game), and often you will see a "farmer's dance," during which gongs and drums are played to encourage enthusiastic dancers. Sometimes itinerant dance troupes will appear in a rural town to get things moving.

Sol-nal, like New Year's everywhere, is an opportunity to celebrate family and tradition. Through ritual and play, Korean families can put their lives into perspective, realign themselves with their heritage, and prepare themselves mentally for their next year of life.
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