This is the second of two posts on New Year’s celebrations in different countries, bringing together my own Google search results with personal input from people associated with our extended family.
This country celebrates New Year’s at the start of the lunar year (Solnal), and have done so for thousands of years. Many Koreans now also celebrate at the start of the solar calendar, which is January 1st. Our family representative, Ellie Seungji Ha, told me this:
“You mentioned that some Koreans celebrate January 1st in the solar calendar. We call it ‘new New Year’s Day’. January 1st in the lunar calendar is ‘old New Year’s Day’. It is the one celebrated by most Koreans with their families. Celebrating ‘new New Year’s Day’ started with the Japanese occupation of Korea. While the solar calendar is used in everyday life (school schedules, government, and companies), most Koreans celebrate traditional holidays like Seol nal and Chooleok following the lunar calendar.
The first thing I thought of when I heard the Korean New Year’s Day (Seol nal) mentioned was our traditional Korean costume (Han bok). Koreans used to wear this costume all day, every day, until 1930. Now, we wear them only for special occasions such as New Year’s, thanksgiving (Choo seok), and weddings. They are colourful and pretty, but a bit too dressy and cumbersome to wear.
On New Year’s Day, my family wore Korean costume and went to meet my extended family. The family lives in many different cities. They get together in my grandparents’ home. Like Christmas in Canada, Seol nal is an exciting event. The women prepare food for everyone, and also prepare various food for ancestors. So it is sometimes a headache/burden for some people, especially the women. As a child or young adult, I never had that responsibility. Therefore Seol nal was always a happy and exciting holiday for me. It was a time to have fun with people I love, and enjoy so many tasty dishes.
On New Year’s Day we visit ancestors who have passed away. We perform a short ritual for ancestors. These rituals have nothing to do with a particular religion, and are a common practice for East Asians. As far as I know, the Korean ritual is the most intense among China, Japan, and Korea. Sometimes, instead of visiting the ancestor’s tomb, the ritual is held at home. We display food in a certain order, and follow the rules for respecting ancestors.
Each generation bows to ancestors – grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, and then us (my cousins and me). It is believed (or considered as superstition) that the ancestors bless us. We also bow to older generations. I and my cousins bow to our parents and grandparents. Our parents bow to their parents. As a response, the older generation gives younger ones money.
Steven and I have discussed the Korean custom of bowing. He felt strongly against it because it seemed like a gesture of submission to people in power. I understand his view. The origin of the bow may be that. For me, it is just another form of greeting, a little more elaborate than hand shaking, because I am so used to it.
For three days at least (sometimes four to five days if a weekend is included), we talk, eat, and play traditional games. My favorite is a board game, called Yoot no lee. The game caused heated competition. Almost always, I and my cousins are hoarse and have blushed cheeks when we finish the game, from energetic cheering and much laughing.
Many go to the beaches along the east sea with family and friend to see the rising sun, and make New Year’s resolutions. People in Korea welcome the rising sun with hope and excitement. When the sun finally starts to show its face after some waiting, people cheer, take pictures of the rising sun, and greet each other with hugs and pats on each other’s shoulders.
The greeting for New Year’s Day can be translated as ‘Be fortunate in the new year’ or ‘Bless you.’ Fortune (or blessing) is represented by a small red pouch. This tradition probably came from China.”
This very large, ancient country has at least 4000 years of recorded history. In China the date of the New Year changes from year to year, as the lunar calendar is used. This year it started on January 31st and went to February 6th. It is also called the Chinese Spring Festival, and is the topmost festival for Chinese people. China is a huge country with diverse groups of people. Not surprisingly, it has different traditions in different parts of the country. One common characteristic is that of family reunions.
The Gibson family’s representatives for China are Eddie and Celine Cheng. Eddie has been a part of our extended family since he came to Canada years ago, as a young student. Celine joined when she married Eddie! With a New Year which runs from January 31st 2014, to February 18th 2015, it was difficult for them to focus on only New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. They provided me with ample material from which to choose. This is what they assembled:
“The biggest event of any Chinese New Year’s Eve is the Reunion Dinner. This meal is comparable to a Christmas dinner in the West. In northern China, it is customary to make dumplings after dinner, to eat around midnight. Dumplings symbolize wealth because their shape resembles a Chinese sycee (gold/silver ingot). By contrast, in the south it is customary to make a New Year cake and, during the following days, send pieces of it as gifts to relatives and friends. After dinner, some families go to local temples, hours before midnight. They pray for a prosperous new year by lighting the first incense of the year. In modern practice many households hold parties and even hold a countdown to the New Year. Traditionally, firecrackers were once lit to scare away evil spirits, with the doors sealed. These were not opened until morning in a ritual called ‘Opening the Door of Fortune.’
The first day is for welcoming the deities of the heavens and earth, and officially starts at midnight. It is traditional to light fireworks, burn bamboo sticks and firecrackers, and make as much of a din as possible to chase off the evil spirits.
Most importantly though, the first day of Chinese New Year is a time to honour one’s elders. Families visit the oldest and most senior members of their extended family. This includes their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.”
Back to where this started. For the citizens of all four countries cited in this study, New Year’s is the most important time of the year. In Japan there are three or four days set aside for the occasion. There is the viewing of the first sunrise (hatsu-hinode). In addition to serving special food, rituals such as visiting temples (hatsumode), wearing special clothing, and holding family gatherings are all common customs. Traditionally, every year is a separate entity from the next one. All duties should be completed by the end of the current year. Worries and troubles should be left behind. With each year one has the chance to make a clean start.
Lorna interviewed Naoko Yamagishi, one of the three Japanese women who accompanied her to see the first sunrise in the New Year. The following is what Naoko told Lorna:
“Harsuhinode is traditionally a family time in Japan, not a party time. People who work in Tokyo, but come from small countryside cities, travel home to be with family for New Year’s celebrations. For several days before New Year’s, the mother prepares a meal, known as Osechi. It will be eaten by the family from January 1st to January 3d. It comprises of many small plates of different food that will last for the three days. It is a feast the family shares to honour the start of a New Year. Many families go to a Shinto shrine either on New Year’s Eve or on January 1st to pray for health and happiness in the coming year. It is also the custom to view the first sunrise on January 1st, to welcome in the New Year.”
My search leads me home to my own back yard. Pursuing only one of the countless celebrations humanity holds dear, a wonderful thing happened. I have walked down a street where the doors to all the homes were slightly open. Glimpses of life within leads me to a much deeper understanding of those I am meeting.
There are special days that I celebrate. Does my celebration of them act like open doors into my beliefs and culture? I hope so, for that is what I have gained from this exercise – the feeling of knowing some other people on this planet – just a little better.
My thanks and appreciation for all of those helped, in many ways, with this endeavour. Many thanks for their help and support: Ellie Seungji Ha, Betty Copland, Eddie and Celine Cheng, Lorna and Naoko Yamagishi (and Japanese friends), Blair Hammond, and Isabel Gibson ….. without your assistance, this would not have been written. Thank you! MMG