By Yang Sung-jin
Oddly enough, Korea observes New Year’s Day twice a year. On major television networks, hanbok-clad celebrities greeted the viewers on Jan. 1, the so-called western New Year’s Day. This time around, the same entertainers will appear and repeat the same message on the lunar New Year’s Day, or “sollal,” which falls on Feb. 16.
Festive it is not. Thanks to the sickly economy, wages are mercilessly cut and a number of people are jobless. Few people expect the sollal bonus at the workplace. No wonder some citizens would rather stay at home instead of visiting their hometowns.
Traditionally, sollal is a part of “seshi,” ceremonial acts repeated regular y during the year in accordance with the phases of the moon. On the lunar New Year’s Day, ordinary Koreans used to enshrine their ancestral tablet and hold a “charye,” a memorial service to their ancestors, with sacrificial offerings.
The memorial services were held for ancestors up to four generations back. Ancestors further back than the fourth generation where given ancestor-memorial services only once a year at their graves. Upon closing the service at the graves, “sebae,” a formal bow of respect to one’s elders, was performed. Sebae was a younger person’s way of bowing to an older person to mark the the first greeting of the new year. Sebae was done by kneeling down and bowing politely.
“Songmyo” was a visit to the ancestral graves to bow and inform the deceased of the new year. Songmyo was a custom equivalent to doing sebae for living people, a necessary act of etiquette for descendants.
At a deeper level, Korean ancestors believed that all living things follow the rules of the moon. For instance, on the last night of the lunar month, when there was no moonlight, people believed that it signaled a delicate transitional period, when social and natural forces cease to act altogether.
When the moon waned on the lunar New Year’s Day, it ushered in a transition prior to entering a new order. To ensure the smooth transition to the new order, Korean ancestors tried not to make any mistakes by carefully restraining their actions and speech on the New Year’s Da .
Choson kings and officials also had a set of rituals on the New Year’s Day. On Dec. 24 of 1411, King Taejong inquired about the to-do-list on the sacred day: “Regarding the upcoming New Year’s Day, I want to know your opinions about carrying out a ritual dedicated to King Taejo and distributing drinks and food to each government agency.”
Official Yu Sa-nul said, “Hosting a party where the king and subjects join together cannot be removed from the schedule. But dedicating a ritual to the former king can be delayed.”
In the morning of Jan. 1 of 1413, a prediction for a solar eclipse cast a gloomy cloud over the festive mood in the court. So King Taejong hosted only the customary ceremony of celebrating the New Year’s Day in the court and canceled the morning session of the minister-level meetings.
Around noon, the king re-appeared in the courtyard timed with the start of the solar eclipse. The ominous natural phenomenon was over at 3 p.m., about one hour earlier than predicated.
King Taejong asked, “There was a one-hour difference between the prediction and actual eclipse. Is the astronomer in charge to be punished for the inaccuracy?”
Official Kim Yo-ji said, “Solar eclipses have their own rules. Though the prediction is slightly off the mark, there seems to be no wrongdoing on the part of the astronomer.”
Official Han Sang-dok put forward an interesting theory: “Even though solar eclipses have their own rules, they do not appear when the king rules the nation properly. Perhaps, there may have been some mechanical problems in the prediction. And the astronomer is therefore innocent.”
King Taejong was a ruler who was quick to understand what was subtly suggested in Han’s remark. He said, “Ancient saints said that if the crime is suspicious, punish the suspect lightly and if the achievement is suspicious, award him generously,” ordering a 20 bushels of rice to Hwang Sa-wu, the astronomer in question.
Let’s Have a Party!
In December of 1481, Uijongbu and the Ministry of Rites called on King Songjong to host ceremonial parties celebrating the New Year’s Day: “New Year’s Day is a big holiday of the nation. Even the lowly people hold parties themselves and acknowledge their parents’ services. Yesterday, Your Majesty canceled two scheduled parties in the court, one of which should be revived.”
The king allowed the party for the elders in the royal family, yet rejected the request for the party where the king and all the court officials could join together.
Sometimes, court officials seized the New Year’s Day as a chance to criticize the king’s mismanagement of the nation. On Jan. 2, 1604, official Chong Won reported to King Sonjo about a white rainbow which skewered the sun in the previous day: “Yesterday, astronomers said that a white rainbow skewered the sun. Given the sun is the foundation of the ‘yang’ (positive) energy and the first day of the first month is when the yang energy is at its peak. It is certainly an ominous sign that a dark force invades the yang energy.”
Then the official went on to mention the turbulent political situation and the public discontent: “While other neighboring nations are threatening to invade us, the public projects are placing a heavier burden on the populace, and continued famine places the nation in disarray. But the government officials are idling away, addressing none of the pressing issues. This is a situation similar to the setting sun and it is fitting that the heaven shows its anger.”
The king replied, “These days natural disasters are frequent and the rainbow covering the sun is indeed depressing me. All the faults are upon me as a ruler, I fear. From now on, I will watch my behaviors more vigilantly.”
On the New Year’s Day of 1638, official Lee Kyong-sok filed an appeal to King Injo: “The first day of the first month is when everything starts afresh. It means the foundation of the heaven’s principle and an integrity that a king should make efforts to achieve. From early morning, never stop practicing virtue and holding a lecture for officials. Don’t forget the hard times. Think of the day when you had to abandon Seoul. How can you forget the difficult times when Your Majesty prayed heart and soul, braving the storm in a lonely castle.”
Lee’s appeal referred to the 1636 Manchu Invasion when King Injo surrendered with much humiliation to the force of the Ching emperor.
Lee’s candid advice to the king is worth appreciating today, with the lunar New Year’s Day just around the corner: Start afresh but don’t forget the hard times.