Flames, festivities and a full moon
Thousands of locals and visitors congregate at the foot of an oreum, a volcanic parasitic cone. As eager onlookers brave the chilly weather, 50 or so “moon houses” (stacks of hay) are torched in a bold message of goodwill and luck.
With the flames engulfing the cone, fireworks and laser shows add to the splendor of the festival’s grand finale.
This is just one of the Jeju Island customs playing out over three days at the start of the lunar calendar. Entering its 13th year, the Jeju Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival (Feb. 12 to 14) is a celebration of the jeongwol daeboreum or full moon festival, held on the 15th day of the first lunar month, with a Jeju Island flavor.
Traditionally, Koreans hold festivals to celebrate the first full moon of the lunar calendar in the belief that it signifies affluence and good luck. It’s also a chance for people to start the Lunar New Year afresh and free of any bad luck or spirits.
In particular, deulbul-noki, or controlled field and parasitic cone burning, is an integral part of the festival. During the winter season, parasitic cones and fields were traditionally torched to get rid of weeds and pests so that fresh grass would sprout in the spring.
While the festival took place at various parasitic cones in the past, Saebyeol Oreum, an area the equivalent of 80 football fields and taking up half the festival grounds, was chosen as the permanent locale for the festivities in 2000.
Before the burning, a torch relay is held. An improved multimedia art show will be added, say organizers. There are also plenty of folk games, kite flying and deungbul, a children’s game played with canteens filled with burning charcoal.
Visitors write their wishes on a piece of paper and place them under the moon houses to be sent to the heavens when the hay is set ablaze. Visitors can also participate in jubul-nori on the final day, a ritual of controlled burning of rice field paddies and river banks to rid the area of rats and mice.
“From our past experience, those who partake in the festival usually return. It’s perhaps the memorable sight of a blazing oreum and the unique experiences that the festival offers but most seem to leave the festival impressed,” said Han Jung-soo of the province’s Tourism Promotion Department.
In order to truly understand the traditions and customs displayed at the festival, one must delve hundreds of years back into the island’s history.
The practice of setting an entire parasitic cone on fire stems from the age-old tradition of controlled field burning. According to Han Jae-ho of the Jeju Special-Governing Province’s Tourism Promotion Department, there are 386 grass-covered parasitic cones on the island which were grazed by horses and cattle. They resulted from previous volcanic activity and are mainly composed of basaltic lava and tuffs.
“Up until about 30 years ago, each household on Jeju Island had an average of two to three cattle or horses. Neighbors would take turns taking a herd of livestock to a nearby oreum or field to graze,” said Heo Nan-choon, associate director of Jeju National University’s Tamla Culture Research Institute.
According to Heo, these parasitic cones were also used as burial sites. In more recent times, signal towers have been placed on parasitic cones near the shore. During the 1970s, the practice of burning came to a halt.
“As a part of the Saemaeul Movement, the government didn’t want to risk losing wildlife, plants and trees in wildfires stemming from field burning. Hence the practice was banned,” said Cho Myeong-chul, director of the Jeju Cultural Center.
Controlled parasitic cone and field burning became a thing of the past until 1997, when the provincial government decided to revive the traditional practice to attract tourists during the full moon festival period.
As was the case back then, precautions are taken as strong winds can cause the fire to spread. According to Han, approximately 100 firefighters will be on hand throughout the festival, with an equal number on standby.
Jeju’s customs are also directly connected to the importance the locals place on horses.
During the Mongol invasions (1231-1270) and Jeju Island’s subsequent 80-year vassalage under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, the number of horses increased.
“The Mongols saw the plains of Jeju Island and began to develop horse ranches on the island starting in the mid-13th century. In later years, some of the finest breeds were groomed for the Joseon royal family,” said Heo.
Although most horses were initially groomed to be used by troops in battle, horses became an important part of the island’s agriculture.
“The island is volcanic and as such, when seeds were planted during the spring months, the fields had to be firmly stepped on or the seeds would not settle properly. Horses and cattle were essential to the people of Jeju Island for this reason as well,” said Heo.
Horses have been the focal point for another reason leading up to this year’s festival. The horse-fighting event, a traditional folk game on the island, was canceled due to strong opposition from animal rights activists who deem the event cruel.
“Although we struggled to have the event included in this year’s festival, it has been left off the schedule. Instead, we will have horseback riding, miniature coaches pulled by ponies and performances involving horses,” said Han.
With the festival growing from a mainly local one to a large-scale event with aspirations for going global, organizers consider the Fire Festival to be a success thus far.
This year, organizers have provided an opportunity for visitors to contribute their message of hope by placing booths in Seoul and on Jeju Island. Three messages will be selected and presented as part of the festival’s closing event. The festival will also feature a Jeju ta-ak (traditional percussion instruments) performance team.
To help visitors, two English-speaking volunteers will be on site near the entrance and guided tours of the grounds and events will be provided by an English-speaking tour guide.
Organizers are optimistic that they’ll have another successful festival, and point out that while winter is not normally the most popular season to visit Jeju Island, the fire event, full moon festivities and traditional folk games are well worth the short flight there.
For more information, visit the festival Web site, www.buriburi.go.kr or the Jeju province Web site, www.jejusi.go.kr, or call (064)728-2894.
By Jason Kim Staff Reporter [email@example.com]