Getting my Knees Dirty on Korean New Year

On Friday night we boarded a bus in Suwon expecting hours of traffic packed in between tumults of snow. We hoped the journey would take less than five hours and, if we were lucky, the bus driver would at least leave the reading lights on, unlike the last time we took the bus.

We knew what was ahead. Korean New Year is famous for the lines of impregnable traffic on the express-way, and for the previous two days, both the weather forecast and my father-in-law had been warning us about the snow that was going to stop the world that existed around us.

Two hours into our journey along the expressway I awoke with a shudder and snort. The bus was cruising steadily along the expressway at an unfamiliar speed, perhaps over 80 kilometres an hour, and we were passing Munmak, thaat perpetual traffic black spot on the Yeongdong Expressway.

It seemed that the worst traffic we would be encountering along the road would have been in Suwon as we made our way painstakingly through the Friday evening, after-work rush. It was unexplainable, so much so that we found ourselves complaining about the lack of traffic, and the lack of snow.

What is it about holidays that make us worry so much? The actual event itself is fine, but it’s the traffic, or the journey we must make on the way to the celebration, that almost make us want to stay at home, waiting out the days off in the comfort of our own homes with cups of tea and convenience store snacks in great abundance.

Last Chuseok we managed to convince Herself’s mother and father to come and spend the occasion at our place. This time, there was no escaping our duty to journey out to Jumunjin on Gangwon-do’s east coast.

Korean New Year, or Seollal (설날, a word which I cannot, for the life of me, pronounce correctly), is a major holiday. I’m not sure if it is the most important or not, but it is definitely on of two. While I’m a bigger fan of Chuseok myself, maybe something to do with the warmer weather and galbijim, New Year has always been a little more relaxed an occasion in Herself’s household. There certainly isn’t as much cooking.

I was thinking about how we have celebrated Korean New Year and that surely everyone does their best to celebrate it to the fullest. As it was going to be a long weekend, we do our best to get away for as much of it as possible. I thought many people would do the same, which I’m sure many do, but many also do their best to avoid it, too.

The long hours spent sitting in traffic, the expense and effort of putting on a large, flamboyant festive meal, and the fact that many families are small and prefer to avoid the hassle, all seem to be changing how the major holidays are beings celebrated. More and more, people spend New Year outside of the country, or they stay home and avoid the traffic.

For some families, visiting the family on New Year can be very stressful, especially for a woman who has married into the family. I’ve heard on numerous occasions that she can often be treated as a hired hand that is there to function at the beck and call of the mother of the house. Of course I know that this probably isn’t exactly the case, and the way I’m putting it makes it sound a lot worse than it actually probably is.

But, women must often visit her husband’s family first, while her own family must play second fiddle. I’m sure this has much to do with the stressfulness of this occasion for families. I heard from one lady that she really only likes to spend a day or two, at the most, with her husbands family for these reasons, despite driving for four or five hours to get there. It really doesn’t come across as a family sounding holiday when you know these things.

Herself is eternally grateful that my ould pair would drop dead at the thought of her playing kitchen lackey for them over Christmas – they would find it much more enjoyable to employ me to the task!

Most people when they go to find out about a particular holiday they’re not familiar with probably end up on Wikipedia, which will tell you all about the traditions of Korean New Year and why it’s special etc.. Maybe I’m missing out on something here, but it catches me as a more special holiday for children.

There is the sebae, when the younger ones bow to their older family members, and then they get money. There is a small ceremony of presenting the spirits of the dead with a meal, but this can be done in the home and the meal’s contents are slightly different from Chuseok. Families don’t usually travel to the grave as they may often be covered in snow, or it just might be too cold. Then there are traditional games to be played.

Now, maybe we are untraditional here in Herself’s family, or maybe it’s because of the size of the family, and because doing it twice a year is too much work, that we don’t really go the whole hog on New Year. While there are bowls of deokgug for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with more food than you would want to shake a stick at, New Year is a distinctly toned down from Chuseok.

Two years ago this wasn’t the case. We had literally just arrived back from Ireland after a year and a half away. After we got married we left Korea, and this was our first time seeing her family in person since then. This was almost like us returning from our honeymoon. To make the return easier, we decided to travel to Cheonan where most of Herself’s family lived in a small cluster of farm houses surrounded by a grape farm.

On New Years Day, everyone was there. Herself’s 95 year old grandmother, her seven uncles and aunts, their wives and husbands, their children and their wives and husbands, and their children. There was sebaeing to beat the band, money exchanging hands, games, running, screaming, deokgug, galbijim, a hundred other different side-dishes all hand made from the various crops grown in patches of land spread out around the farmland, and myself and Herself existing dozy and jet-lagged in the middle of it.

Every so often, some old friend of the family would appear and great us and everyone else. A bottle of something would be taken out, and more food would appear on the table, followed by stories and laughter. I lost track of where I was and who anyone was, and I don’t think that I can blame jet-lag for this. Here was the celebration of a family holiday that I could compare with my own family ridden Christmases back in Ireland.

Jumunjin New Year celebrations are much more placid and laid back. Today we woke relatively late for here, around 7.30am. Breakfast was served after some final preparations in the kitchen, and then a special table was laid out by the window for the spirits to feast on. Some incense was lit and we watched the television for a few minutes. Afterwards, the big table was laid out on the floor and the rest of the breakfast was brought in – more side dishes, steamed fish, fried fish, and of course, big heavy bowls full of deokgug.

Deokgug is rice cake soup that is traditionally eaten on Korean New Year. It’s quite simple to prepare as far as I know. You boil some water and crack in an egg, put in some stewing beef sliced into small cubes, some chopped spring onion, and rice cakes. It’s a particular kind of rice cake however, and not the kind you see been sold that are all bright and colourful. These ones are long, cylindrical, and quite wide but have been sliced thinly to look like elliptically shaped coins. There may be some other small additions required, but I’m pretty sure this is the bones of it. You let this boil away until all is cooked, leaving everything sitting in a nice thick and creamy white soup from all the ingredients. When you serve it you can throw on some crushed seaweed, sesame seeds, and season it appropriately. Some people like to add some mandu, or dumplings to theirs, as we did this morning, but this isn’t essential (although this is debatable!).

After breakfast, I fell back asleep for an hour or two, as did my father-in-law, and Herself’s brother. They are still asleep now. Herself and her mother did play some games for a while, Go-Stop, which is anything but traditional. Herself got cleaned out.

Now? Well a bit like the last time, everyone is either watching the TV or snoring happily on the warm heated floor.

Later, I might try and drag Herself out for a walk down to the beach. It’s probably quite cold, but there are some nice quaint coffee shops that roast their own beans. We’ll shack up in one that isn’t too loud, read for a while, and then wander back up to her folks place for more food.

A lovely, peaceful New Year and I hope you have one too!

Happy New Year!

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