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Society Celebrations in Korea

Seshi, as days of festivity, act as a stimulus in life and accelerate the rhythm of the yearly life cycle so as to help one move on to the next cycle.

Seshi customs are based on the lunar calendar.  The sun was not believed to show any seasonal characteristics; the moon, on the other hand, was believed to show these seasonal characteristics well through its wane and unity with the passage of time.  As as result, it was easy to observe and appropriately evaluate the seasonal changes based on its changes.  The expression "seshi customs" refers to ceremonial acts that are customarily repeated during the year.

During the First Moon, New Year's Day - the biggest holiday of the year - and the 15th day were celebrated.  On New Year's Day, Koreans enshrine their ancestral tablet and hold a ch'arye.  A ch'arye is the holding of an ancestor-memorial service on festive days, with food and wine offered in sacrifice to the ancestral tablet.

Ordinarily ancestor memorial services were held for ancestors up to four generations back; for ancestors further back than the fourth generation, ancestor memorial services were held only once a year at their graves.  Songmyo is a visit to the ancestral graves to bow and inform them of the new year.  Songmyo was a custom that was equal to doing sebae for living people; it was an absolutely necessary act of etiquette for descendants.  Upon finishing songmyo, sebae (a formal bow of respect to one's elders) was performed.  Sebae is a younger person's bowing to an older person as the first greeting at the new year.  Sebae is done by kneeling down and bowing politely.

The 15th day of the Eighth Moon is Ch'usok, Thanksgiving Day.  Along with New Year's Day, Ch'usok (also called Harvest Moon Festival) is the biggest holiday in Korea.  With freshly harvested grains and fruits, ancestor memorial services were performed, and visits to one's ancestors' graves were made.  One of the dishes prepared for this day that cannot go unmentioned is songp'yon.  Inside songp'yon freshly harvested sesame, beans, red beans, chestnuts or Chinese dates are stuffed.

Many rites and customs are linked to the passage of the four seasons.  They reinforce the link between nature and humanity, and bring communities together in a sense of shared purpose.  Traditionally the Korean people followed a lunar calendar which conformed closely to the seasons.  The four seasons, distinct in Korea, formed the basis of everyday life in traditional society.  

Annual Customs

For thousands of years, Koreans have reckoned time according to the lunar calendar. Contrary to common belief, the lunar calendar has always been adjusted to correspond to the solar year by intercalation or by adding a whole lunar month, to the lunar year twice every five years. This can be demonstrated by the fact that the solar calendar is divided into 24 equal portions (or called ch>ol) of which the equinoxes and solstices are used as fixed points. Even before the solar calendar was introduced to Asia, the lunar calendar recognized these chol or seasonal nodes, as they are important dates for agricultural communities. Give or take one or two days, these nodes fall more or less on the same day by the solar calendar; this, however, is not the case with the lunar calendar. The most important chol are of course the equinoxes and solstices, but ipch'un (the advent of spring) is given more weight than others because it is the first node of the year and marks the approach of spring. Several special holidays are reckoned by the lunar calendar even today.

The first day of the first month, New Year's Day, or Sol, is one of the biggest holidays of the year. On this day, people traditionally dress their best, take off from work and gather with family to observe the ancestral ceremonies. A feast is spread and the younger members of the family make New Year's pledge of obedience to their elders. These youths then go around the neighborhood to offer New Year's greetings to their older relatives and acquaintances.

Another important date by the lunar calendar is Ch'usok, or the Harvest Moon Festival, which falls on the 15th day of the Eighth Moon, usually in September or October by the solar calendar. As this date marks the harvest time, and is celebrated as enthusiastically as New Year's Day.

There are a few other important days in the lunar year. The 15th day of the First Moon is regarded as important since it is the first full moon of the year. People crack various kinds of nuts and set off firecrackers to exorcise harmful spirits, insects and animals. In the evening, a variety of traditional games are played under the moonlight. Tug of war, stone fights and mock fights with torches are a few examples of the games held between neighboring villages. These are staged by youths and middle-aged men before hundreds of spectators who come from far and near. These games are played to win, and tradition has it that the winning village will be blessed with bumper crops.

Sometime during the First or Second Moon is a day called hanshik. This is the 105th day after the winter solstice, falling about the fifth of April by the solar calendar. On this day, ancestor rites are performed early in the morning when the whole family visits the tombs of their ancestors to pay respects. This usually includes tidying up the tombs.

The fifth day of the Fifth Moon is called tano, which is another big holiday. According to ancient records, people on this day rested from work, dressed up in their best, and feasted just as they would on New Year's Day. Special events usually planned for the day include wrestling matches for men in which the champion receives a bull as a prize. Likewise, women participate in swinging competitions; the winner of this event goes home with a gold ring.

The 10th Moon is the month for kimjang. During this month kimchi or pickled vegetables, must be prepared for the upcoming three months of winter. Every household was therefore busy preparing this important work. A popular greeting during these time of year was "Have you finished kimjang?"

The 12th Moon, called sottal, is a time when people traditionally got their affairs in proper order, including the settling of debts, to prepare for the new year. An honorable man is not supposed to carry his debts over to the next year. Ancient records tell us that in the old days, the court held exorcising ceremonies, called narye, to expel evil spirits. In rural areas, a musical performance of nong-ak or farmers' music is also used to expel evil spirits and usher in good fortune.

Another important event is Buddha's Birthday, which falls on the eighth day of the Fourth Moon of the lunar calendar, or April or May in the solar calendar. Buddha's Birthday has recently been designated a national holiday.


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