Why not everyone is happy during Korean holidays, Seollal and Chuseok

Not everyone is happy in Korean holidays.

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When we think of holidays, we often imagine gathering with family, enjoying delicious food, and having a great time together. However, nowadays, Korean holidays are not just a joy anymore; there’s a growing perception of increased family conflicts and, shockingly, rising divorce rates and even reports of domestic violence during these times.

Let’s explore what’s happening in Korea during this time.

How do you say "Holidays" in Korean?

Although the English translations for both 명절 and 휴일 might simply be “holiday,” technically, the meanings of these two words are a bit different in Korean.

“명절” translates to “traditional holiday”, typically referring to Seollal (Korean Lunar New Year) or Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving). These holidays have deep cultural and historical significance. On the other hand, “휴일” translates to “holiday” or “vacation” in English. It’s a broader term that encompasses all types of holidays, including public holidays, weekends, or personal days off work.

During 명절, Koreans engage in traditions such as paying respects to ancestors, sharing foods like tteokguk (rice cake soup) for Seollal or songpyeon (rice cakes) for Chuseok, and exchanging gifts. It’s a time for family bonding and heritage honoring.

Confucianism generates family conflicts in Korea?

However, in recent times, many Korean families have experienced conflicts during Korean holidays.

The factor most blamed for generating the conflicts is the influence of Confucian culture in Korea, particularly “the hierarchy and rules in the relationship between the older and the younger” and “the different hierarchies and roles assigned to married couples by gender.”

Respect for elders in Confucianism emphasizes the importance of caring for and obeying parents as a moral duty. As a result, during 명절, grown-up sons and daughters give their parents money with a sense of gratitude, which can sometimes create financial and emotional burdens related to the money amount.

Also, on Seollal, the Korean Lunar New Year, there’s a tradition of 세뱃돈. 세뱃돈 refers to a traditional monetary gift. Elders give 세뱃돈 to children, symbolizing well-wishes for prosperity and a fresh start. However, over time, the meaning has faded, and the amount of 세뱃돈 has become associated with the dignity of adults. As a result, holidays became a challenging event for Korean people in their 30s to 50s who are more active economically.

Yet, even the children receiving 세뱃돈 are not entirely joyful in Seollal. Since listening well to adults’ opinions is considered a virtue, they end up stressed by the constant nagging about their studies, jobs, marriage, etc.

Also, the traditional family structure in Confucianism assigns specific roles based on gender. This means that women have limited freedom and are expected to be in a lower position within the family.

In Korea, women in their 30s to 50s are generally recognized as having equal status in their workplaces and individual families. However, when they go to their husbands’ families, they often experience inequality for this reason, and they end up doing all the labor.

Of course, not all families are like that, but many daughters-in-law suffer physically by preparing a tremendous amount of food for the ancestral rites. In some households, only women set up the ritual table, while only men perform the ritual bowing to the ancestors.

So basically, hardly anyone doesn’t feel stressed in this situation.

But the older generation has their side of complaints too.

Although they also experienced stress and difficulties when they were young, they thought it was the right thing to do and fulfilled their obligations. Now that they have become elders, they find themselves in a position where they can’t receive the treatment they expected.

The original meaning of Confucianism is different

In fact, these Confucian values helped tremendously in maintaining a strong community in the past, where people spent most of their lives in the town where they were born and raised.

The elders who spent most of their lives in the town could give the best advice and teachings to the younger people who lived in the same town. Thus, based on these needs, this culture could contribute to maintaining social order and cohesion within Korean communities and fostering family harmony.

However, in our modern society, elders’ wisdom and opinions can no longer solve all the worries of the youth, and more variables and changes are occurring than in the past.

As a result, modern Koreans believe Confucianism is no longer suitable for contemporary society.

Nevertheless, the Korean organization ‘Sung Kyun Kwan’, which is making efforts to popularize Confucian culture, emphasizes that the original meaning of Confucianism is somewhat different from the public perception today.

Initially, the ancestral rites were very simple, but after the abolition of the class system in the late Joseon period, the number of ritual foods increased for displaying wealth and power. Also, the distinction between the person preparing the ritual table and the one performing the ritual bowing is also a misconception.

New trends for spending Korean holidays

Due to all these reasons mentioned earlier, in recent times, there has been a trend shift of spending the Korean holidays in a different way, such as not gathering with large extended families but spending it lightly within individual families or even omitting the ancestral rites. Alternatively, some families gather for a simple meal or go on a trip together.

The COVID-19 social distancing measures have played a significant role in this change. People have come to realize spending Seollal or Chuseok without giving ancestral rites might be better to avoid family conflicts.

What do you think about this phenomenon?

However, many Koreans are concerned about the disappearance of unique Korean holiday customs, but opinions are still divided.

Will the Korean Lunar New Year and Thanksgiving day disappear at the end?

Is this a regrettable extinction of traditional culture, or is it a natural phenomenon of change destined to occur as values change over time?

What do you think about this phenomenon?

This was “Korean Study Cafe”.

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