Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Seolnal Celebrations: At the Folk Museum

추석, (Chuseok) Korean Thanksgiving or Harvest Moon, and 설날, (Seolnal) Lunar New Year, are the two largest holidays in the Korean calendar. Due to the lunar calendar being counted by moons rather than by fixed periods of monthly times as is the solar calendar, this year Seolnal actually fell on February 14, Valentine's Day. Although Valentine's Day has been a borrowed celebration day, most assuredly for marketing reasons, this year Valentine's Day got little attention. While there were boxes of chocolates in red and bouquets of candy and flowers in exotic colors of pink and fuchsia, the gift boxes on the majority of store shelves focused on familial gift giving rather than that of the romantic.

While a majority of restaurants were closed, museums and food stalls with bungabbang (fish bread), cotton candy and yut candy (rice-malt taffy) near them flourished. The Korean Folk Museum was packed with people nibbling on food stall goodies and children playing the traditional games in the several courtyards. A particular favorite was 윷놀이 (yoot - pictured) with its four one-sided colored sticks and a wooden gameboard. The game was originally used for divining which of five livestock to raise in small farming communities but now most people are unaware of its origins and simply enjoy the game, especially on Lunar New Years.

Other games being played were tuho, arrow-throwing. I have heard that originally tuho was a court game for teaching young boys dexterity with the throwing arm, but now children simply enjoy the simple sport of throwing dull-tipped arrows in a vase or jar 2-3 meters away, which in itself is a good eye-hand coordination activity for active children on New Years. Neol-ttuigi or Korean see-saw (pictured) is also a game reserved principally for New Years but was once an activity for young girls of the upper classes who were locked within their Confucian home walls for preventing men from looking upon their fresh faces, a family affront as women were not to be seen by non-family members. So young girls would jump on a board higher and higher in order to catch fleeting glimpses over their courtyard walls.

Set up in white festive tents around the perimeter of several courtyards were other activities for all members of the family. Because 2010 is the Year of the White Tiger and masks have important cultural significance within Korea, one tent offered tiger mask making. Kite making was another favorite and the kites ranged from the taegukki (the Korean flag) to animal figures, particularly with the tiger, on them. Decades ago children would fly kites on Seolnal and when the kite was flying high, the children would make their New Years wish and sever the string, and if something happened like the kite flying away and not crashing to earth, their dream would come true. This is definitely a cultural practice of the past and most likely the modern child hasn't even heard of the old dream-come-true practice.

Neighboring tents offered the traditional art of hanja, Korean traditional paper, to be made into pencil boxes which were essential for the Confucian scholar and also hanja serving bowls with chrysanthemum or other symbolic flowers stylized in their centers. Unsurprisingly for present-day Korea, all ages and both genders were participating in the hanja crafts. About some aspects like arts and crafts, men under 30 or so do not feel their manhood threatened by participating in what was formerly a woman's artform; in a way, the younger generations have been eMANcipated from specific sexual spheres of expectations.

Several food tents were also located on a strip and for a token amount of money a sample of some traditional delicacy could be purchased. Lines were long and people patient for the tasty food trifles. While people waited, a nearby tent served briskly and efficiently a never-ending flow of chrysanthemum tea, but just a wee sip in traditional tea set services, of course minus the elegant and time-consuming ceremonial service of the Choseon Dynasty. Chrysanthemums were not only for tea in Korea but were medicinal and also profoundly artistic, particularly as they are known as one of the Four Gracious Plants which together are a cyclical balance of seasons of which the chrysanthemum was the representative of autumn.

The area, however, which caught the most attention was for the deok (rice cake) maker. A man in the traditional hemp working class garb with his shock of black hair tied with a white cloth bandana-style related stories of long ago, stories related to ddeok. After 2 or 3 stories with the children correcting him in his telling, he would empty a dishpan of steamed rice onto an immense hemp cloth and with his large wooden >mallet begin pounding. Young boys volunteered to pound and pound among the cheers of the spectators, for with each successful pound and softening blow of the mallet, the crowd was that much closer to a traditional and favorite rice-cake treat, and one that was hand-made! As soon as the rice had been pounded into a glutinous mass, doughy wads were rolled in bean-powder and the crowd delighted in receiving even a tiny cake of yellow bean-powdered coated rice cake, the most traditional food of Seolnal.

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