[j-style]Wedding Ritual Hasn't Faded

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[j-style]Wedding Ritual Hasn't Faded

Gift of the Nuptial Chest, Hahm, Keeps Rite Alive.

On weekend evenings during the fall, the favored wedding season in Korea, it is easy to spot the hahm "salesmen" in neighborhood streets or apartment blocks. In fact, their chant of "buy hahm" can go on for several hours if they feel they are not being paid enough for each step they take toward the bride's house.

The ritual of the sale of the hahm is known as "nappye" and traditionally constituted the last step in the marriage process, as the marriage certificate accompanies the gifts and the marriage is declared complete once the certificate is read aloud. Tradition has it, that after the chest has been received, it is not possible to cancel the marriage.

Few young people getting married these days are aware of the significance of nappye.

"I only have a vague notion that the bride's relatives get together to look at the gifts sent in the hahm," said Yang Sung-jin, 28, who is getting married early next month. "The neighbors will also know who is getting married, because the ritual is likely to be noisy."

Like many aspects of traditional Korean culture, the selling of hahm is heavily laden with symbolism, and each act in the ceremony full of meaning.

According to the 'Handbook on Four Ceremonies' by Lee Jae, published in 1844, a traditional wedding consists of four ceremonies.

The man's family makes the marriage proposal. If it is accepted, the families exchange the year, month, day and hour of the birth of the bride and groom. The woman's family uses this information to set the wedding date. In the third ceremony, the groom's family sends to the bride's family a chest containing a marriage certificate (a symbolic rather than legal document) and gifts. The actual wedding ceremony is the fourth ritual.

Because most Koreans now have Western-style weddings, only the third ceremony survives - the practice of sending "hahm," or wedding chests. This act takes the form of a symbolic sale of the chest. The bridegroom's friends act as "salesmen" and the bride's family act as "buyers." The sale of the hahm has degenerated into an occasion for partying for the bridegroom's friends, who often get paid between 200,000 won ($180) and one million won for it.

The chest that the groom's family sends is a gift, and expresses their gratitude for the marriage. The chest contains the marriage certificate written by the groom's father. It is wrapped in black cloth and pieces of blue and red silk.

This certificate acts as the marriage contract and is kept hidden by the bride in her wardrobe. The paper is buried with the bride when she dies.

The blue silk is wrapped in red paper and tied loosely with blue silk thread that can be undone with a simple tug. Likewise, the red silk is wrapped in blue paper and tied loosely with red silk thread. The silk pieces are wrapped in opposite colors as a wish for a harmonious union of man and woman. The tying of the silk thread symbolizes the joining of hearts. The chest, often made of paulownia or inlaid with mother-of-pearl, is wrapped in red cloth, held together by a long piece of cotton cloth. This cloth can later be used as a baby's diaper.

A piece of white paper is laid on the bottom of the chest. A sachet containing an odd number of red peppers is placed in the center of the paper, symbolizing hope for a son. Four sachets containing red beans, yellow beans, tea tree seeds and incense are placed in the four corners of the chest.

Red beans ward off evil spirits, yellow beans express hope for a kind and gentle daughter-in-law, tea tree seeds signify that a woman should serve only one man (as tea trees tend to die if transplanted) and incense eliminates bad odors, protecting the valuable gifts in the chest.

A letter of appreciation and a list of goods are put in first, followed by the red silk and blue silk. The marriage paper is on the top. All this is covered with another piece of paper. Bush clover branches are used to secure the contents. The contents are not glued or tied, symbolizing hope that no "knots" or crises will occur during the couple's married life.

Before the chest is sent, it is put on a steamer containing layered chestnut-and-date glutinous rice cake, topped with red beans. The chestnut is chosen because the chestnut tree takes firm root, symbolizing hope that the bride becomes part of the family. The nine dates represents the traditional belief that a bride should spend three years deaf, three years mute and three years blind after she marries. This idea conveys the belief that women should remain passive in the marriage.

A married man with a first-born son is chosen from the groom's family to carry the chest on his back. Escorted by three or four men carrying torches, he sets off for the bride's house after sunset, when yin and yang cross.

At the bride's house, the family prepares the same kind of rice cake and waits for the chest to arrive.

Once at the doorstep, there is a bit of staged haggling as the carrier shouts: "Selling hahm" or "Buy hahm," refusing the bride's family's entreaties to come in.

Once inside the house, the chest is put on the steamer, and the chest-carrier and the bride's father exchange greetings. The father takes the marriage paper out of the chest, reads the paper and returns it to the envelope. The reading of the marriage paper constitutes the marriage.

The chest is then sent to a room, where the bride and her mother are waiting. Opening the chest just slightly, the mother reaches for the silk cloth without looking. If she selects the red silk, the first child will be a boy, according to an old saying. The bride is given a piece of the rice cake on the lid of her rice bowl. The family eats all the rice cake so as not to taint it. The cake must not be cut with a knife.

The bride's father usually gives the hahm-carrier money to cover traveling expenses. The hahm-carrying party is also treated to a sumptuous dinner.
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