Lunar New Year was not always my favorite holiday. Growing up, my parents would wake us up in the cold winter dawn. My siblings and I would try to hide in the warmth of the blankets, but my dad would force us to get up in the still darkness. My mom would make us put on some stiff new hanbok, which was always uncomfortable, and we’d take some rickety train out into the Korean countryside to visit extended family and the family gravesite.
There would be a lot of bowing and fussing—stuff I never fully understood as a young child. All that ritual in front of a bunch of dead relatives felt a little morbid to me.
As an adult, of course, I understand that those rituals were to pay respect to the elders and to the generations before us. In a Confucian society, lineage was super important, and family was everything. As a child, I understood nothing of this. All I knew was that we’d fall asleep on the train ride down, and my siblings and I would get scolded by mom for wrinkling our brand new hanbok.
Still, I loved to see my cousins. My dad was from a family of 16 kids (14 boys, 2 girls), so there were always a bunch of cousins to play with, all of us running around in the snow getting our brightly colored new hanbok dirty. Most of us kids eagerly waited for the saebae, the time when we had to bow to our elders and listen to their advice about this and that. It was always the same old thing about getting good grades, listening to our parents, etc. (We always got good grades, so I never understood why they would tell us the same thing every year!)
Now I know why the elders always told us the same thing. They saw a bunch of nieces and nephews only once a year, and didn’t know anything about our lives. They could barely remember our names, let alone give us any proper sage advice. They were probably struggling to come up with something that sounded wise, their one chance to impart some wisdom into our young lives.
"Most of us kids eagerly waited for the saebae, the time when we had to bow to our elders and listen to their advice about this and that. "
Our prizes for having to listen to the old folks drone on were fistfuls of money, fruit, and gifts. We would bow, sit obediently on the floor and listen to their advice, then run out into the snow again to compare our bounty. I was always miffed that the older kids got more money than me, not understanding that we had to earn our coin with age and experience.
While the rest of the kids were playing outside, I loved to sneak into the back kitchen where a large pot of ddeokguk (rice cake soup) was boiling. I’d climb onto some precarious thing and peer into the boiling cauldron of delicious soup, trying to sneak out a soft rice cake from the pot before one of my aunts discovered me and shooed me out of the kitchen.
My favorite part of the day was sitting down cross-legged on the cushions on the heated floors to a comforting bowl of soup with rice cakes and dumplings (ddeok manduguk). Ddeokguk is the traditional dish we eat on New Year’s day, but my favorite version was the mandu ddeokguk, with dumplings inside. Sure, I loved filling my little pouch with shiny new coins from my relatives, but it wasn’t as great as fishing out the mandu from the steaming bowl and trying not to burn my mouth while I impatiently stuffed them inside. I would spoon extra ones out of my sister’s bowl and put them in my little brother’s, so he would get bigger faster.
The delicious meat-filled mandu was a bite of perfection, full of ginger and garlic and buchu and everything all in one hot bite. One of my uncles would say that we are eating another year. In Korean culture, everyone gets a year older on New Year’s Day. Eating the rice cakes in the soup symbolizes that collective aging.
To this day, our family gets together every New Year for saebae. I’m now one of the middle elders taking my seat while the younger ones bow, paying their respects to us. I struggle to not tell them to get better grades and listen to their parents. What kind of wisdom can I impart to the younger generation in a 5-minute ritual only once a year?
"Eating the rice cakes in the soup symbolizes that collective aging."
I look at my young nephews and nieces and tell them to learn how to make mandu, to fold the pleats, and learn the patience of cooking. I tell them about the ritual of cleaning your house before the coming year to make space for the new and clear out the cobwebs of the year before. I feel the strings of time run through us all as we sit and slurp down the hot soup and think about the future.
I don’t have any wise words for the kids, but I can eat with them as we all grow another year older together.
Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee's 4 Recipes for Lunar New Year
- Mandu (Korean Dumplings)
- Mandu Guk (Korean Dumpling Soup)
- Tteokguk (Korean Rice Cake Soup)
- Kalbi Jjim (Korean Braised Short Ribs)