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Lunar New Year: How do Koreans Celebrate?

I went to a Lunar New Year celebration last month, right here in Utah! It was put on by a large Korean and Korean-American population, and offered me a unique chance to step into Korean Culture without driving more than fifteen minutes from my house. The entire community was invited to learn about Korean culture and traditions. I heard so much Korean as I walked around, surrounded by people of all ages dressed in traditional hanbok and other dressy outfits for the occasion. Unfortunately, the rest of the community (including myself) was unprepared for the more formal dress of the Koreans putting on the event. So, here's my tip #1 for attending a Lunar New Year Festival: Dress nice! Even the little kids were running around in bow ties or hanbok!

If you didn't know already, hanbok is traditional Korean dress that often looks similar to some of the pictures I've included below. Traditionally, hanbok styles and colors were used to express one's social status and also relations to family members. For example, certain colors were more typically worn by mothers with sons, or other colors to denote that one was a widower. Hanbok are wonderfully bright and colorful, regardless of age or gender!


Korean Arts Display

One of my favorite parts of the Lunar New Year Festival was seeing the arts and crafts display! The pictures below show some of my favorites, including a miniature of Korean masks, paper art or 'scupltures', and celadon pottery.

Traditional mask making is continued in a variety of forms, including these miniature versions that are only a bit larger than an American quarter. These masks - called Hahoetal masks (하회탈) - are still used in performances today. Their original purpose was shamanistic in nature, but later became more commonly used in theatrical and entertaining skits performed in villages throughout early Korea. The different masks are broadly recognized as general characters or the embodiment of different emotions. The performances that used Hahoetal masks provided socially appropriate ways for Koreans to express emotions or struggles otherwise unacceptable to point out. The Hahoetal mask performances developed into satirical shows often critiquing local leaders, and right under the leader's noses! Common themes decried the hypocrisy of the upper classes, the corruption of government officials, and a plethora of other human evils.

The second picture shows an example of what was explained to me as paper sculpture. The woman who made this one was very excited to explain the art. This one shows a woman beating on a traditional drum (called a buk) in a dance-like pose. Her colorful hanbok is made of beautifully twisted paper. Traditionally, this art form uses paper made from the inner bark of mulberry trees. Interestingly, cultures throughout Polynesia also used mulberry bark to make cloth called tapa. As in the example above, Koreans then often painted or dyed the paper to add color onto the naturally light colored paper.

Korea has long been heralded for its excellent pottery, and specifically its celadon pottery from the Goryeo dynasty. The vase shown above has one of the most common celadon motifs, that of a crane. To Koreans, cranes often symbolize longevity and peace. Celadon is famous and is difficult to mimic, due to its iconic natural green color that remains even after the clay dries. Another unique feature that is only truly appreciated when viewed up close is the beautiful crackle-glaze that forms over the surface of the pottery.

Korean Games

Both little kids and adults enjoyed playing traditional Korean games, including jegichagi (제기차기), ddakji (딱지), Korean checkers (jangi or 장기), and even Korean-style piñata. I had a fun time trying my hand at these new games, even though I was brutally crushed at ddakji by a seven-year-old girl in bubblegum pink hanbok!

Ddakji is a game played in pairs. The game pieces are made by folding two thick wads of paper, or even cardboard, together into a sort of diamond. You may recognize this game from one scene in the hit series Squid Game. These game pieces are ready for the game!

The youngest player goes first, with the end goal being to flip the other person's ddakji. I had to lay my precious dakkji on the ground and my cute opponent gave a vicious slap down, smacking her dakkji down onto mine. Aiming at the corners was supposed to be a hint for flipping the other person's dakkji over. Additionally, I learned that it is easier to flip a dakkji when it is on its 'belly' or the side with the folded parts exposed. It got surprisingly intense, and I had to be taught the right grip, a sandwich like hold on one of the dakkji corners. Eventually I flipped one! Success!

The second game I played was jegichagi. This game originally was played in winter, when children were stuck inside and needed something fun to occupy themselves with. The jegi is made of a weight of some sort wrapped in paper (or cellophane with streamers at the top), with a tuft sticking up at the top like a ponytail. This is then tossed up and kicked repeatedly, with the goal to keep it up longer than your opponents using only your foot. When in large groups, people also play in a circle by passing the jegi to each other until someone drops it and is then 'out'. Some of the people I watched were remarkably good at it, even the dads and grandpas joined in to show off their impressive skills! Just take a look at this clip for proof!

There were also some jangi (장기) sets and I heard several people talking about how they used to like playing in the park in Korea. Jangi seems to mostly be popular with the older population and will likely be something I see often when I visit Korea... particularly if I hang around any parks! The game has similarities to both chess and checkers, but is actually descended from a Chinese game called xiangqi. This is why the pieces have Chinese characters on them.

The finale for the games was the Korean-style piñata, which actually isn't a copy of a piñata at all, just something similar in purpose and practice. The little kids were split into two groups, with each assigned to a different floating sphere - one blue and one red, the counterparts of the Korean flag. The children were then tossed bean bags at the orbs to see which group could break theirs open first... eventually releasing candy and confetti onto the clamoring party below! The 'pinata' was actually made of two laundry-type-mesh baskets stuck together with velcro and covered with colored paper. The kids loved it, and the parents loved watching their kids have fun!

Performances: Music, Dance, and Martial Arts

One other awesome part of the Lunar New Year Festival was the performances that the local Korean population put on periodically while the gathering explored different aspects of Korean culture. The teenage girls showed off their K-pop skills, a taekwondo group performed their board-splitting drills, and traditional drumming gave the entire audience chills! I've included some of the best clips below!


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