New Year’s calls for a time of transition and celebration for the forthcoming of a new period of our lives. When did it become the time for gaining an unimaginable number of pounds and setting goals we probably won’t carry out? When we turn our attention to other countries, like Korea for instance, we see that there are so many other traditions that commemorate such a significant day. Let me present some of the popular traditions in Korea that symbolize the true meaning of New Year’s.
In Korea, family, love and honor are the strongest virtues in life, and it’s crucial to maintain a healthy relationship with each and every family member, no matter how close or distant they may be. So what better way to start the year than to reunite with the whole extended family? Many Asian families, including mine, consist of quite a number of people, and I, personally, was never too excited about wearing the uncomfortable hanbok (traditional Korean clothes) and bowing to people I barely knew. I remember that gender and marital status also used to influence which leg was kneeling. Sometimes, the elders would respond and summarize your achievements during the past year, so if you didn’t have sturdy legs, they would fall asleep. On a more positive note, the elders I bowed to would hand me an envelope full of money for wishing them health and prosperity. Now that many years have passed, I understand that wishing my elders luck and blessings in the next year is an honor and privilege I am fortunate to carry out.
With a new year coming, a delicious meal approaches. In Korea, there are so many dishes that symbolize this uplifting holiday. For instance, there is japchae (seasoned glass noodles stir fried with various vegetables), manduguk (steamed dumpling soup), shikhye (sweet rice drink) and one of my personal favorites, hobak jun (pan fried zucchini pancakes). But the dish most widely known as the staple food symbolizing New Year’s is ddukguk. Ddukguk is a soup filled with oval-shaped dduk (Korean rice cakes), chopped tofu, thinly sliced scrambled eggs and sprinkled with roasted seaweed pieces. When I was younger, I was told that I had to eat nine pieces of dduk in order to turn nine years old. There are many variations of this notion, but to me, I always thought my mom made it up in order for my sisters and me to eat all my food — but to my surprise, finishing a whole bowl of ddukguk in order to grow one year older has always been a tradition.
After the grand feast, it’s time for game night, a time of fun and competition. But why play plain old board games on the day of restoration and new comings? Yutnori is one of the only traditional games, played during New Year’s, that has remained in Korea. The game requires four wooden sticks, usually around seven to eight inches long. One side of the stick is round and has a design, like a Chinese character or symbol, written on it. The other side is flat and only one of the four sticks is labeled with “벡도” (back one) or “X.” There is also a game board with a layout similar to the American game Sorry. Like Sorry, the objective of the game is to get all four spawn figures, usually coins or stones, around the board before the other team gets you. Yutnori is usually played with a large group of people, who are then split into groups. Instead of throwing die to determine how many steps you take, the four sticks are thrown on a blanket placed on the floor. If a stick falls out of the blanket, you get a zero and lose a turn. So you can imagine how this game can take all night. Playing with aggressive family members makes it that much more fun and intriguing.
New Year’s can mean so many things to someone. The start of a new chapter in life, the growth of a successful journey or the ongoing struggle one may face. But one thing for certain is that there is always going to be a time to release any resentment or regrets we might hold so that we can welcome whatever lies ahead. So during this time, we need to embrace all that the new year offers, and take it as an opportunity to celebrate new beginnings.