New Year's for Koreans traditionally refers to the Lunar New Year, this year on Jan. 25. The three-day Seollal celebration includes the days before and following the 25th. The rites involve celebrating ancestors, to my mind like Chuseok. They feature venerating or honoring one's living elders (on the second day). They also involve spending time together, having celebratory meals and giving pocket money to grandchildren. Children and grandchildren may travel a long way to visit the elders (though I'm sure the elderly do as well in instances). The cost of travel, gifts, meals and other events can be large. Certain foods such as savory pancakes and rice cakes abound on these days in meals and for snacks. The celebrations can involve wearing traditional clothes and the giving of new clothes as gifts. Wikipedia notes Seollal includes lighting a bonfire "moon house" to ward off evil spirits. Let's do more of that I say!
With changing seasons and global climate change, winters may not resemble "the days of old." To my understanding, Lunar New Year inspirits us, beginning if we think of matters as farmers in rural locales. The long, dark, dreary and freezing conditions are moving by. Spring and its promises approach. Seollal also represents and suggests the Confucian Korean estimate of family, and the hierarchy of bonds by age and status within family. Lunar New Year joins our understanding of human nature to the communities on which we depend.
Daeboreum marks the first full moon in the new lunar year. It occurs this year on Feb. 8. The Wikipedia entry for this festival is wonderful. It lists many special customs marking Daeboreum over the centuries. This year, I think I'll spread some mud on my own doors, but I'm not going to try to crack nuts with my teeth. It'd do me good to walk bridges all night, as I'm trying to avoid a varicose vein relapse these days! One can see from other celebrations that Daeboreum anticipates the planting season through rituals to ward off bugs, mosquitoes, and animal diseases. I also will light a lantern to mimic samguk-sagi. I prefer this to Western worries about werewolves and vampires associated with full moons.
Finally, many students at Korean universities pursue valued and important jobs in the civil service, or related promotions. Their undergraduate and graduate work continues, but for many, it leads up to April's administration of civil service exams. Winter months see students honing their knowledge for a purpose, continuing the old practice of Confucian state exams in different forms. When I taught in Seoul, a few of my students had dedicated their careers to the civil service. I visited several offices of different administrative and public agencies. They impressed me with uniform dedication, organization, and programming for the good of citizens, foreigners, and guests at the national, provincial, city, town, county, district, and neighborhood levels. While Korea is a unitary state, it organizes public administration across geographic levels to meet an ever-growing set of needs and public expectations. We should all recognize and support those studying for the spring exams this winter!
Enjoy taking part in Korea's winter rites. Spring will come soon, and we should prepare for it. Let's also celebrate the legacy of Korean traditions and practices. Though doubtlessly they change, each remains an important part of the wonderful civilization of Korea.
Bernard Rowan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate provost for contract administration and professor of political science at Chicago State University. He is a past fellow of the Korea Foundation and former visiting professor at Hanyang University.