This Is a Time for Families to Honor Their Ancestors

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This Is a Time for Families to Honor Their Ancestors

The Lunar New Year exodus has begun and virtually all the streets of Seoul will be deserted after Koreans head out of the city to their hometowns in celebration of this holiday. It is, after all, the second biggest holiday in Korea next to Chuseok, and a meaningful time when families get together and duly pay respect to their ancestors. It is also a time when grownups and children alike can indulge in traditional home-made food.

On New Year's Day, Koreans engage in a sacred offering ritual called jesa or charye, which is led by the jeju (head of the family according to paternal lineage).

For this ceremony a table known as the charyesang is set with food to commemorate deceased relatives – normally from up to four generations ago. Preparation of this table is an important task as most Korean wives and daughters cook for days in advance of this family tradition.

When preparation of the charyesang is complete, family members line up according to rank or relationship to the deceased and bow before the table as a way to seek blessings from their ancestors. Jesa is held early in the morning, and afterward another table is set for a hearty breakfast consisting of tteokguk (rice cake soup) and the dishes that were used in the offering.

The dishes used to adorn the charyesang are the cream of the crop, as far as Korean cuisine goes, and are placed on the table according to strict rules handed down from generation to generation.
A screen facing north is placed behind the table and a photograph
or jibang (a paper or wooden tablet bearing the ancestor's name) is placed between two candles to symbolize the presence of ancestral spirits.

The first and second rows on the table include tteokguk, jeon (pan-fried patty), jeok (grilled dish) and tang (stew) as the main dishes. Jeon, jeok and tang come in various combinations of beef, seafood or vegetables.

Placed on the third row are a variety of banchan (side dishes), po (dried fish or beef jerky), namul (stir-fried vegetables), kimchi and some kind of dipping sauce.

Traditional desserts including seasonal fruits, yakgwa (fried cakes of wheat flour, honey and oil), gangjung (candied cereals) and sikhye (rice nectar drink) are placed nearest to the table edges.

Incense is burned on a smaller table in front of the charye-sang
and, to the right of this, a kettle full of liquor and an empty bowl called toeju geureut are placed.

Honoring a shamanistic belief that ancestral spirits visit their descendants' home on New Year's Day to consume the meal, Koreans serve the food with utmost respect. During the ritual, there are a number of symbolic gestures to signify when the spirits have started and finished the meal.

When the spirits are assumed to be eating, chopsticks are placed standing upright in a bowl of steamed rice and the spoons are placed inside the soup. After the family members have bowed to the spirits, the utensils are removed from the food and placed in a sijeop, or brass bowl. Finally, the liquor served in a jejujan (small cup) is poured into the toeju geureut to symbolize that it was "consumed" by the spirits.

The traditions for jesa may vary depending on family and region, but the jubilant festivities of the Lunar New Year always keep Koreans traveling home.

by Inès Cho

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