From Korea with Love

"I carry your heart with me… always."


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정월대보름: First Full Moon Festival

Yesterday, February 24th, was the first full moon of this year’s Lunar calendar, also known as 정월대보름 (Jeongwol Daeboreum) in South Korea. 정월대보름 (or 대보름) is celebrated on the 15th day of the first month of the Lunar new year.

Some Korean families have rituals or activities during this day. In some places like Jeju Island or Gangwon Province, a great bonfire is held and various folk games are played. In the olden days, people would play a traditional game called 쥐불놀이 (geuybulnori/jwibulnoli) on the night before the festival. They set ablaze the dry grass on furrows between rice fields to fertilize the fields and to get rid of insects and worms that damage crops. My husband told me that when he was a child, he would put holes in a can, place charcoal fire in it, and spin the can until the burning charcoal fire goes through the holes and makes a spectacular sight similar to a whirling firework.

In the morning, people ate 오곡밥 (ogokbap) for breakfast. 오곡밥 is steamed rice mixed and cooked with five kinds of grains such as barley, millet, soybeans, red beans and black beans. Farmers would share the rice with their neighbors. They believed that if they share it with at least three families, they would receive good fortune and good harvest throughout the year.

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They ate the rice with different kinds of dried herbs and nuts like chestnuts, walnuts, pine nuts and peanuts as symbol of prosperity and good health. The nuts are cracked with their teeth. People believed that by doing this, their teeth will be stronger for the whole year. (Ouch! Have you tried cracking a walnut with your teeth?) Nowadays, Korean people don’t really follow this 대보름 ritual of cracking nuts with their teeth. (After all, going to the dentist to have your tooth/teeth fixed could get quite pricey these days.)

On Saturday night, Omonim, my mother in-law, cooked 오곡밥. We ate it for dinner, along with 시금치무침 (sigeumchi muchim: sauteed spinach) and dried seaweeds which I was asked to prepare. There were also other side dishes that we often serve for dinner like kimchi and grilled fish, as well as kimchi soup, which is one of my specialties.

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My parents-in-law brought home dried peanuts and walnuts, too. I was full, so I skipped the part when all the members of the family would sit together, crack nuts and eat them. Besides, my husband who happens to be my official nut cracker was not home yet, and I can’t crack walnuts with my bare hands, just like what the rest of the family does.

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Next year, if possible, I would like to try climbing a mountain (or a rooftop/tree) on 대보름 to watch the rising of the first full moon of the year. They say that the first person to see the full moon will have good luck all year. I don’t believe in luck, but I think it will be so romantic watching the first full moon with your special someone, as you cuddle up on a cold winter night.

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Seollal (Lunar New Year in SK)

I have been hooked into watching Drop Dead Divas previous seasons that I barely had time to write in my blog. In fact, I almost forgot that one of the biggest holidays in South Korea starts today.

Today is the first day of Seollal season. Seollal is Korea’s Lunar New Year. It is celebrated on the first day of the lunar calendar and lasts for three days. The day before, the day of and the day after Seollal are non-working holidays. This year, Seollal falls on February 10th (Sunday). From today, most Korean households are busy preparing for tomorrow’s celebration. For two years, the day before Seollal, I had been fulfilling the duty of a 며느리 (daughter-in-law), and that is to go to my husband’s eldest uncle’s house, where we have our family gathering, and help with the cooking and other chores. This is common among married women in Korea, that is why they say that most women here dread the occasion instead of look forward to it. This morning, I didn’t have to wake up early to go to Big Uncle‘s house, because they moved out and I don’t know their new house, so instead of helping with the Seollal preparation, I spent the rest of the morning in bed and enjoyed the rest of the day going out for a walk and watching a movie with my husband. (Happy day. ^^)

Seollal preparation can be quite taxing, especially for families who have to go to the countryside or big cities to be with their elders or relatives who live far. Some families make early travel arrangements, so they won’t have to deal with the stress of getting last-minute tickets and heavy traffic. Still, there is too much traffic on Seollal season, so no matter how I try to convince my husband to go some place after Seollal, he would say, “No.” The day after Seollal is considered a day of rest, but for families who have to travel back home, it is rather a tiring day.

Most of my husband’s relatives live nearby, and being Christians, they don’t perform ancestral rites. Some Korean families make a lot of preparation for these ancestral rites. They dress in hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) and gather at the ritual table in the morning. The women arrange the ritual table that should contain a memorial tablet and all the food used as offerings to the ancestors, which are later served to the family.

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When everything is ready, family members bow to their ancestors’ spirits, make offerings and pray. After paying their respects to the spirits, they eat the ritual food set on the table. The younger members of the family bow to the elders and present them with gifts. In return, the elders give them their blessings and wish them good things. All the young members of my husband’s family bow to the elders as a sign of respect. Instead of gifts, we give the elders money in an envelope. My husband has a big family, and we would go broke if we give money to all the elders, so we give only to our parents (or parents-in-law) and the eldest uncle who hosts the annual family gathering. On the other hand, the children receive  세뱃돈 (money given on New Year) from the elders after they bow to them and say, ” 새해 복 많이 받으세요!” (Have a blessed New Year!) Parents take a lot of effort in dressing up their kids for the 세뱃 (ceremonial bowing). They have them wear colorful and pretty hanboks. A few weeks before Seollal, you can see many children’s hanboks sold in department stores all around Korea. Even grocery stores sell them!

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Two of my adorable students garbed in their cute hanboks ^^V

Hanboks are not the only popular items in the market when Seollal is just around the corner. Seollal presents are also everywhere such as fruit, meat, traditional Korean snacks, herbs and yes, even toiletries (which we get every year).

Two weeks before Seollal, my husband and I went to Homeplus to buy some groceries. There were various Seollal presents on display.

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On Seollal, we spend the rest of the day in Big Uncle’s house. We go there in the morning for the worship, have breakfast, and then bow to the elders. We usually stay for lunch and dinner. The women help one another in preparing the meal, washing the dishes and cleaning, while the men keep themselves busy drinking, talking and playing 고스톱 (a Korean card game called Go-stop). Once all the work is done, some of the women join the men in playing. I don’t know how to play Go-stop, but I have tried playing a traditional game of sticks called 윷노리 (Yutnori).

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My husband plays Go-stop with Omonim and some of his aunties.

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Last year, my husband and I won 70, 000 KRW (almost 65 USD) from playing Yutnori with the family. ^^

To be honest, I don’t like it when the women stay in the kitchen most of the time while the men enjoy themselves. It’s not as if women don’t get to sit down and rest, but wouldn’t it be better if there is division of labor among men and women? (Just saying… ^^)

새해 복 많이 받으세요… Have a blessed new year! ^^