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A group of elderly men in white ceremonial robes and high black headpieces made of horsehair kowtow on the straw mat. Before them stands a sacrificial rites table laden with food and the requisite pig's head. Resting on the ground in front of the table are newly erected jangseung, or totem poles, with fierce frowns that are supposed to ward off evil spirits.

It's called janseungje, a rite traditionally performed to ask the Cheonhadaejanggun (great general of earth) and the Jihayeojanggun (great general of the underworld), represented by the wooden totem poles, to protect the village from diseases and ghosts. This particular janseungje was held Thursday at the National Folk Museum of Korea by people from the remote village of Hanjeolgol in South Chungcheong province.

The climax of the ceremony is the burning of soji, a piece of white paper with one's wishes written on it. A band of percussion instrument players, known as pungmulnoripae, dance to the beat of their drums and gongs as the white ashes float and twirl about in the air, transporting the wishes up to heaven.

Similar scenes are repeated in many rural villages throughout Korea to mark Jeongwol Daeboreum, the 15th day of the first month of the year according to the lunar calendar - which, this year, falls on Tuesday. Many traditional rites occur on this date when the first full moon of the lunar year appears. Being an agricultural society, Koreans have traditionally revered the moon. According to the ancient theory of yin and yang (eum and yang in Korean), the sun is yang, personified as a man, while the moon is yin, personified as a woman. The moon represents a goddess and Earth, both of which bear life, and thus stands for bountifulness.

Celebration of the first full moon begins early in the day. On the morning of Daeboreum, families sit down to a breakfast of five grains and dried vegetables. Ogokbap, a mix of glutinous rice, red beans, black beans, glutinous millet and sorghum steamed together, is eaten in hopes of a good harvest of these grains.

Virtually everything is imbued with some superstitious meaning in Korea, even the basic act of eating. Villagers exchanged ogokbap, believing that eating rice from at least three families with different last names would bring good fortune for the year. Still others believed that one should eat nine times on this day to guarantee good luck.

Another must-eat dish on the day is yaksik, a steamed mix of glutinous rice, dates, chestnuts, pine nuts and honey. The practice of eating this sweet rice dish dates back to the Silla Kingdom when the day was assigned as a memorial rites day for crows and yaksik was offered during the ceremony.

Accompanying the rice is an assortment of namul, such as dried zucchini, dried radish, dried mushroom, dried eggplant and dried radish leaves that were cut up and dried for storage in the fall. According to folklore, eating these vegetables will guard against heatstroke come summer.

Pine nuts, raw chestnuts, walnuts, ginkgo nuts and peanuts are eaten in the evening in hopes that chewing on these hard-shelled nuts and eating them will strengthen one's teeth. The nuts, collectively called bureom, are eaten to prevent skin diseases, loosely termed buseureom, which sounds similar to bureom.

For the farmers of old, Daeboreum, which means "the largest of full moons," was especially significant because it is the first full moon before the second lunar month, when the new farming season began after a long winter's break. In fact, many of the Daeboreum traditions involve trying to guess the amount of the year's harvest. At the same time, this is a day for community celebrations.

Many of the games played on the day, such as daljib (moon house) burning, involved the whole village. As the moon rises, a tall pillar with a bamboo stick in the center, covered with straw and pine branches, is lit on fire amidst loud music played by the village band. A brightly burning daljib is a harbinger of a good harvest while a fire that dies out before consuming the entire structure is considered a bad omen for that year's harvest.

Another game played under the moonlight was the torch fight. The villagers divide themselves into those living in the west and east. As the moon begins to rise, each side shouts obscenities at each other. At the sound of the loud music by the band signaling the start of the fight proper, each side dashes forward, hitting the other's torches. The fight continues until all the torchlights have been put out and the side with the most number of people who surrendered is declared the loser.

Of course, the women of the village were not to be left out of the festivities. In southeastern Korea, young women played what is known as stepping on the brass bridge or stepping on tiles. The women stand in one straight line and, bent at the waist, they hold the waist of the person in front. A "princess" chosen beforehand walks slowly on the women's backs, aided by two maids who hold her hands on either side, as all of them chant a special song. After the princess stepped on each woman, she would move to the front of the line, so that the princess never came to the end of the line.

Stepping on bridges, which dates back to the Goryeo Kingdom, was a game that was enjoyed by everyone, regardless of age or gender, and it remains popular to this day. In some regions, people walk on the longest bridge or the oldest bridge around. It was thought that walking on the bridge 12 times would fight off evil spirits for the coming 12 months and ensure that diseases of the legs are kept at bay for the year. Old Korea was also a society with a strict class system and the yangban, or noble class, did their bridge stepping on the 14th day of the first month, so that they would not have to come into physical contact with commoners.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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