By Min Seong-jae
I will spend the Lunar New Year’s holiday rather quietly. No celebrations, no family gatherings, no feasts, and no memorial rites for my ancestors. Instead, I am sending gifts to some of my relatives via online shopping. And I plan to visit some cool cafes for nice snacks and coffee.
Traditional holiday rituals and gatherings are rapidly going out of fashion in Korea. According to a recent poll by Korea Research, only about half of the respondents said they will see relatives during this year’s Lunar New Year Holiday; Only 4 out of 10 said they plan to do a memorial rite, the traditional big table ceremony paying respect to the ancestors. That is quite a dramatic drop from 2006 when Gallup Korea found that at least 80% of Koreans engaged in memorial rites during Chuseok and Lunar New Year’s holidays. Looking around me now, few are celebrating in the traditional way.
The traditional holiday rites have been criticized as burdensome, inconvenient and irrational. You have to travel in a disastrous traffic jam, prepare a load of traditional Korean food for hours or even days – the onus that falls almost entirely on women in the family – and invite ghosts to eat together and kowtow to them. The whole thing seems superstitious and patriarchal, costs lots of time, money, and effort, and very frequently leads to family squabbles.
So, many Koreans, especially young ones, opt out of the memorial rites or forego the entire holiday gatherings and celebrations. Instead, they travel abroad, take a rest, and have some time to themselves. This trend will likely intensify as marriage and birth rates precipitate and many young people choose to or are forced to make a single-person household. Whether we like it or not, Korean society increasingly consists of atomized individuals. Another recent poll, this time conducted by the furniture store IKEA, showed that 40% of Koreans feel happiest when they are alone at home, which is the highest percentage among the countries surveyed. The same poll found that only 8% of Koreans find joy and reward in raising children at home, securing the lowest spot globally.
The traditional way of celebrating holidays, and Confucian-induced customs in general, seems out of date. The memorial rites for ancestors, in particular, have gone awry and stress out many people. But with all their problems, I believe yearning for familial connection and love is at the heart of those rites and ceremonies. Honoring one’s ancestors and showing respect to them (granted, it is only for the men’s side) is a beautiful way of life. It is a time that celebrates connections to each other.
In the U.S., holidays are heavily commercialized and simplified celebrations that are sponsored by the department store Macy’s, and people transform into frenzied shoppers the next day. New Year’s Eve celebrations are funded by companies like Planet Fitness who want to lure customers to the gyms, exploiting their fragile New Year’s resolutions. I prefer the Korean way of family gatherings and somewhat solemn rites despite their issues. Perhaps the customs and rites should be further simplified as suggested by many. As a society, we should think about how to reconstruct the traditions in a modern way, especially the patriarchal nature of the rites.
I asked her not to, but my 81-year-old mother still wants to do a Lunar New Year’s Day memorial rite for the ancestors as she has done so for many decades. I asked her not to cook but rather buy prepared dishes, but she will make her own no matter what. I asked her to do it simply, which she agreed to, but I know that it is still going to be a big table of food. I do not know whether the traditional rite will continue or not. But from my mother, I feel like I see the last vestiges of these customs.
Min Seong-jae is a professor of communication and media studies at Pace University in New York City. He is a 2023-24 Fulbright U.S. Scholar to Korea.