Korean Holiday Traditions

For as long as I can remember, holidays, specifically Christmas, have always been my favorite times of the year.  Looking back at past Christmases, I think the reason they were so good was because my family had traditions that we would repeat every year.  Korean holidays follow along the same lines, in that most of them are based around tradition and celebrated each year, just like Americans celebrate Christmas or New Year’s. Recently, we received a video of Whitney’s family at their Chuseok celebration and I now find myself missing them, even though I never celebrated Chuseok here in the States.

We are coming up on one year since we last saw the Jeons.  I am so glad we have the technology to get to “see” them, but it is not the same as actually being there.  It was priceless getting a chance to hand Whitney’s grandmother her first Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and watching her face light up when she bit into it.  Or having Whitney’s Appa drive us all around Seoul, trying to find the biggest Christmas tree because I told him that I love Christmas. Up until that point, the Jeons barely even celebrated Christmas, but because it was important to me, it became important to them.  So they found me one and had me take dozens of pictures of the family in front of it.

Jeon family Chuseok 2016

This past Chuseok holiday was a great reminder for me of how much family I have gained over the past few years.  Family, not only in the States through Whitney’s adoptive family, but also the family that I now have in Korea.  I wanted to understand their Chuseok holiday more, so I recently did a bunch of research. Every picture I saw of the food looked identical to the food that was on the Jeon’s serving table this past year.  I realized it is just like having a Christmas tree or putting up holiday decorations – everything has to be done with detail and precision.  I think one of the best things is the fact that every family member is present and accounted for. It is a part of life to make it to every holiday celebration.  There are no excuses to miss a family holiday and it is at the top of the priority list for everyone.

I think one of the main differences between American holidays and Korean holidays is that Koreans will always make time to be at every holiday with the family.  One thing as an American that I have seen is how Whitney and I both had “traditions” during certain holidays coming into our marriage, and how we compromised to create our own new traditions after getting married.  This took a lot of time, energy and even some trial runs, but eventually we found new traditions that work for us.  In Korea, there are no “new” traditions – only ones that have been in place for centuries that every family follows.  You do not get a chance to “skip” a holiday if you do not feel like participating that year. You do it because everyone before you has.  It is such a different mentality from what I am used to.

The “new” traditions that Whitney & I have implemented are not extreme, but they are our own. Our family is spread out all across the United States and realize that we cannot try to juggle all of them at the same time.  So we have chosen every year to not travel on Christmas Day and protect it as our own “family” holiday together in Nashville.  In Korea, this mentality would not work at all.  We would be expected to be at all of the family gatherings and not just create our own versions of them.  In some ways, this can be perceived as being over the top, but on the other hand, you know what is expected of you and you just do it.

Grandfather’s jesa, 2014

Seeing all of the Jeon’s celebrations with everyone together really makes me think of my birth family.  I wonder if I come from a large or small family and if any of them even know that I exist other than my birth mother, if she is still living.  I am very thankful for my life here in the States, but I am human, and sometimes I wonder, “What if…” Does my birth family celebrate just the traditional Korean holidays, or have they begun to implement Western holidays and celebrate them as well? If they are like the Jeons, they probably have not been celebrating Christmas, which is one holiday I would love to introduce them to.

These past few years have gone by so fast.  I never thought that I would be this interested in my Korean heritage or wanting to learn so much more about my culture and where I come from. Interacting with the Jeons and building my relationships with them has really opened my eyes to all of the hard questions that come with Korea for me.  Where did I come from? The obvious answer is “Korea,” but I want a much deeper answer.  I want to know my birth family tree and my ancestors.  What kind of contributions have they made to Korea or society or even the world?  I talk a lot about this because it is always in the forefront of my mind.  My hope is that I get some answers in the future about my birth family, but for now, I am happy with my current relationships and the privilege of seeing Korean holidays through the eyes of the Jeons.

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