Today is 설날 [seolnal] in Korea, the first day of the new year based on the lunar calendar. Once more, themes of fresh starts, of new beginnings, come to mind.
There are no fireworks or parades, however, unlike the Chinese New Year celebration in Hongkong where I was living at this time last year. In Korea, and thus here on Jeju Island, this day is one of family togetherness and is observed in an amalgam of traditional Confucian and shamanic rites.
The theme: ancestor remembrance.
The value at its foundation: maintaining family integrity.
One of the most fundamental aspects of Korean society is the family structure as the basis for community. The relationship among people takes precedent over all else, and many rituals and customs are engaged to reinforce these bonds. Knowledge itself is contextually dependent, as is the language, reflecting an innately felt connectedness.
This is rapidly changing, as it has in a majority of other societies. Many people in Korea today opt for vacation during the extended 설날 holiday period. Rituals of remembrance, or 찰예 [charye], are offered via Internet as an alternative to gathering with the family. Formal bowing done by children to their elders as a sign of respect, 세배 [sebae], are typically perceived by children as merely a way to obtain 세배돈 [sebaeton] — the money they receive in return.
While the concepts of family, community, and relationship are still quite strong in Korea, there is growing evidence of their weakening.
Korea’s traditions have not favored all people equally; until a century ago, a highly structured class system was in place, and women have been kept in secondary positions for many centuries. However, this most basic value of relationship, both within and outside of the family — encapsulated by the simple yet ubiquitous word 우리, which means we / us / our and conveys a general sense of inclusiveness — is well worth preserving.
Today, families all across Korea observe the beginning of the new year — together. May it continue to be so.
새해 복 많이 받으세요
[saehae bok manhi badeu seyo]
Happy New Year, everyone.