February 17, 18 and 19 are this year’s lunar new year holiday. The actual “seol-nal” (romanization but pronounced as “seol-lal”) is February 18 but the eve and the day after the celebration are non-working days to give time for the people to go to their hometown and back. Lunar new year is one of the two biggest holidays here. The other one is “Chu-seok” or Thanksgiving day, which is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eighth month (8.15) of the lunar calendar. As these holidays are based on the lunar calendar, the dates on the gregorian calendar changes every year.
My husband’s hometown is in Jecheon, a two-hour drive from the capital, but we celebrated the holiday for the second time here in Seoul. Two years ago, we had to endure the bumper-to-bumper traffic prevalent during this season. It is more practical for the family to stay in the city rather than to go to their hometown for the holiday. Now, it is only his parents who have to travel for the celebration.
It is said that most Korean women hate the holidays, and as a daughter-in-law I can understand why. I just don’t lose sleep over it like others do. After all, it is not everyday that we have this kind of celebration. My husband is the third son so whatever task I have to do is really miniscule compared to the first daughter-in-law’s. I don’t have to cook like my other sisters-in-law, since I am a foreigner and they thought I’m not used to cooking Korean foods.
On the first day of the celebration, everybody gathers at my eldest brother-in-law’s house. That’s where we do all the food preparation for next morning’s offering for the ancestors. For the new year, we had to make “mandu” or Korean dumplings, “jeon” or panfried food, “tteok” or rice cakes and “banchan” or side dishes. We started work after breakfast, at around 9 o’clock in the morning and ended at almost 8 o’clock in the evening. In most Korean families, men just sit around doing nothing. In my husband’s family, the men also help with the preparation. The men in the family are the ones who make the “mandu” and wash dishes after the meals.
On new year’s day, the adults wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning to prepare the table for the ancestral rites (called “cha-rye”). For this, we have to prepare food to be offered and place them properly and attractively on wooden containers (“je-gi”). Every food group has to be represented. There should be food taken from the land as well as the sea. It usually takes about two hours to prepare everything (it’s always a joke trying to arrange the dates and chestnuts on the jegi as they always fall!). Then everybody wears a “hanbok” (traditional korean clothes) before the main “ceremony”. Only the men are allowed to do the offering for the ancestors, but the women in my family also pay respects by bowing (called “jeol”).
What goes on in the “ceremony”? The men of the family offer the food to the ancestors by placing the spoons in the rice. They will also fill the wooden cups with wine (“sul”) and place them on the stand. After the offering, a white paper with the ancestors’ names written on it is burned. The descendants then bow (men first then the women) and afterwards drink the wine and eat the food on the altar.
After the ceremony, it is time for the much awaited part of every “seolnal” celebration. This is when the juniors bow to the seniors and receive their new year’s money, called “sebe ton”. This equates to the Philippine tradition of going to our “ninong” (godfather) and “ninang” (godmother) on Christmas day for our “aginaldo” (christmas gift).
By the time every “seol-nal” activity has finished, it is already 9 AM. It’s time for breakfast, which is what I’ve been waiting for the whole time since waking up at 6 AM. The breakfast table would be filled with all the dishes served on the altar, which includes chicken, fish, beef, veggies, rice cakes and “mandu guk” (dumpling soup).
If we were in the province, we would have visited the tombs of the ancestors in the mountains. Now that we celebrate in Seoul, we visit before or after “seol-nal” instead.