Plenty to do, traditionally speaking

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Plenty to do, traditionally speaking

Once again, it's time to put on a few pounds and fill your pockets with sebaetdon, or the money your family's elders hand over after you bow to them. Seollal, or lunar New Year's, is one of Korea's two most important holidays, along with Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving. Seollal is Korea's longest holiday period, normally including a weekend and lasting about five days.

For people whose families aren't here in Korea, though, the festive days can be a challenge. Because New Year's is for Koreans a family-oriented event, most shops and restaurants close down, often stranding people who depend on eating out. And unlike New Year's celebrations in the West, you won't see fireworks or hear party horns. Koreans spend New Year's at home quietly playing yut, a traditional game using sticks, and eating endless bowls of tteokguk, or rice cake soup, made by their grandmothers.

But if you're in search of a traditional activity to take in over the New Year's weekend, Korea's national museums and cultural centers are hosting events that will provide you with a look into the spirit of lunar New Year's.


Straining for good luck

Korea's lunar New Year's traditions are long and rich, but these days many young lovebirds eschew them and spend New Year's Eve tossing back wine and cooing. Indeed, the holiday used to mean a lot more than just a few days off - for centuries Koreans considered it a time to carry out rituals ensuring good fortune. Unfortunately, many traditions have been forgotten. One that hasn't is the hanging of rice strainers, often tied together with red thread on kitchen walls or in the corners of a room. Woven from reeds, the ladle-like strainers are used to wash rice of impurities. Peddlers selling strainers were once abundant. Folks believed that the strainers brought good luck. These days, the best place to buy strainers, which typically cost 2,500 won ($1.90) each, is at the Namsangol traditional Korean Village in Pil-dong. Two strainers with a good luck charm pouch and an amulet against evils go for 5,000 won. Take exit 3 from the Chungmuro subway station. Then it's a five minute walk.

Becoming a Motto Citizen

One of Korea's waning traditions is to hang a framed hand-written family motto in the house. The motto exemplifies the family's ideals, and the quality of the calligraphy is used to gauge the family's status. The mottos are often short, such as "Be generous to strangers." During New Year's, a few places will provide motto-writing services: A calligrapher will provide the service Monday at the Cheongju National Museum (043-252-0710) in North Chungcheong province, and calligraphers will be on hand at Seoul's Namsangol village (02-2266-6937) from Sunday to Feb. 13.

Stirring Your own Soup

Older Koreans often joke that eating tteokguk, or rice cake soup, means eating for another year. They say you cannot become a year older without eating a bowl of tteokguk on New Year's Day. A soup containing thinly sliced rice cakes and strips of fried eggs with a thick beef broth, tteokguk is always a favorite meal in Korea, but is a tradition to eat as the breakfast on lunar New Year's.

At the National Folk Museum, visitors can make tteokguk, or simply watch how Korean cooks do it. On Wednesday the museum will hold a do-it-yourself class, with a chef imparting the tastiest recipes. An instructor will show the traditional way to make dough for tteok, using a special technique with a wooden mortar. All cooking utensils and ingredients will be provided by the museum, and admission is also free. For more information, call 02-725-5964. The Gyeongju National Museum will also have a tteok-making session Monday through Feb. 13. For information, call 0561-772-5194.

catch A Movie - FOR FREE

Some museums will show free movies for the holidays. Every Saturday this month the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Gwacheon (02-2188-6000) will screen family dramas at 2 p.m. On Saturday the museum will play "The Children of Heaven" by Majid Majidi, on Feb. 16 it will show "The Cup" by Khyentse Norbu and on Feb. 23 it will show "The Scent of Green Papaya" by Tran Anh Hung. English dubbing available. The Gimhae National Museum (055-325-9333) in South Gyeongsang province will show folk music documentaries every day this month, starting at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.


Lunar New Year's certainly doesn't connote the drinking binges that solar New Year's does. Nevertheless, the National Folk Museum of Korea will host a special exhibition featuring a diverse range of colorful Korean snacks and regional liquors, and visitors will be welcome to sample the offerings. The exhibition is designed to provide insight into the history and use of various wines according to occasion in Korea, and visitors will be able to familiarize themselves with local drinking etiquette and culture. The event will run from Wednesday through Feb. 28.


The lunar New Year holiday season is a great time to observe Korean traditional plays and games. From Sunday through Feb. 13 at Korea's folk villages you can try your hand at a number of traditional games. One of the most popular for all family members is yut nori, a game of chance akin to dice, except that the players throw long sticks. Two teams take turns tossing four wooden sticks with tapered ends. One side is flat while the other is rounded. How the sticks land determine who wins the game.

Another cherished pastime is neol ttuigi, a Korean version of a teeter-totter that is used traditionally by women. A big rectangular plank is placed across a fulcrum, and two persons stand on opposite ends of the board, then take turns hopping and going airborne. Women confined to palace walls devised the game to steal fleeting glimpses of the outside world. Namsangol will have a neol ttuigi competition for visitors on Sunday and Feb. 13 at 4 p.m. and Feb. 12 at 1 p.m.


An exhibition of cartoons illustrating Korea's traditional New Year's customs will be on display at the National Folk Museum. The images include rules for setting tables at traditional events, performing ancestral memorial rites and for doing sebae, or bowing to family elders. The show also contrasts Korea's New Year's traditions with China's and Japan's. The exhibition starts Wednesday and continues through March 4. The museum is also hosting a "Horse, Pillar of the New Millennium" exhibition that reflects the symbolic nature of horses in Korean myth and ritual. For more information, call 02-720-3138.


If you want to take in a traditional Korean musical, watch "The Days of Motherhood," now showing at the National Theater of Korea. This tearjerker drama relates the tragic life of a poor mother of two sons who decides to give up her older son for adoption. Time passes and the older boy becomes a prosecutor in charge of a murder case in which his younger brother, who grew up a gangster, is entangled. During intermissions, live traditional music will entertain. To get to the National Theater of Korea, take subway line No. 3 to Dongguk University and go out exit 3. The theater runs regular shuttle buses from the spot starting 40 minutes before the show. Call 02-368-1616 for more information.


Pungmul gut is a shamanic exorcism rite that is performed both to help the dead make an easy passage to paradise and ensure good fortune for the village in the new year. On Tuesday at 2 p.m. at the National Folk Museum, one of the only folk musical ensembles that preserve the authentic traditions of the ancient dance will present the visual spectacle. The group, the Imsil Instrument Group company, is based in North Jeolla province and consists of some 30 members. The dancers will perform aengmaggi gut, a shamanic ritual performed on or around New Year's Day since time immemorial to ward off misfortune.

On the same day at noon, Namsangol Village will hold a special gut ritual designed to ensure Korea's successful hosting of this year's World Cup soccer championships. The performance in Namsan will be in its Park Young-hyo Gaok.


Down below Seoul's skyscrapers, old palaces are serene and affordable places to find peace and quiet. During the holidays, though, they are bustling with activity, and excellent places to experience Korean traditions. A tip: If you have or can manage to get a hanbok, or Korean traditional clothing, you will be admitted free to Seoul's old palaces - Gyeongbok, Deoksu, Changgyeong and Changdeok - and national museums. Another way to get special treatment is to prove that 2002 will be your lucky year, meaning you were born in the year of the Horse - 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954 and so on.

by Park Soo-mee, Chun Su-jin

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