Common traditions, varied details

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Feb 1, 2013 - 20:52
  • Updated : Feb 1, 2013 - 20:52
A common image of Korean cities at Seollal is of streets gone quiet, with tourists and expats left to their own devices, free of family obligations.

But tradition doesn’t always split things so neatly.

One Korean who won’t be braving the Lunar New Year traffic is Hong Mi-kyung, who is looking forward to enjoying Seollal at her leisure.

“We either go on a trip or we rest, because while everyone is traveling to their provincial towns for 10-12 hours, we’re sitting here in Seoul City and it’s quite deserted, and we can enjoy the city without any traffic whatsoever,” she said.

“I love it. It’s just like a free holiday.”

Hong’s family is not untraditional, though: Her in-laws hold ancestral rituals several times a year, but their New Year’s rites have been held according to the solar calendar for as long as any of them can recall ― at least as far back as when the family moved south in the 1940s, when the official holiday was on Jan. 1.

Hong’s in-laws are from what is now North Korea, where it was more common to adopt such modern approaches, she said.

She added that the ceremonies varied slightly by region. While her family cooks much of the food in “jeon”-style (fried in batter), her relatives in the Gyeongsang region grill their food.

She also says the food for the rites in Gyeongsang uses more luxurious ingredients, such as abalone, and unlike her family, the women are not allowed into the room with the altar.

Breaking the norm in another way, one expat who will take part in a more traditional Seollal celebration is Christopher Smith, who married into a Korean family.

Like Hong, his family also does things slightly differently to how it is done in other parts of the country. The Suncheon side of his family visits the mountainside graves in the evening, as opposed to the morning like the rest of the country.

The rites are otherwise similar to elsewhere, with the usual stringent placement of food, order of ceremony and bowing. He’s still getting to grips with the procedures, he said, and had to follow his in-laws’ lead in the ceremony.

“I have to be involved in the ceremony. I am considered part of the family, so I must do everything that they do,” he said.

“I did make the odd mistake like putting my hands in my pocket and things like that, so I get told off occasionally, but they are quite understanding.”

By Paul Kerry (