In Korea, ancient traditions are still heavily woven into modern culture, and you can see this beautiful mixture of old and new everywhere you look – from the blend of modern cities with historic palaces and villages to the wearing of 한복 (hanbok), a traditional staple of Korean clothing, in contemporary fashion trends.
An excellent example of Korea’s traditional-contemporary culture can be seen in weddings, 혼례 (Hon-lye), which have evolved over the years to include both modern wedding practices while still holding onto ancient Korean traditions and customs.
Read on to learn about what takes place at a traditional Korean wedding.
In the past, the process for two people to get married went somewhat like this; first there was the 의혼 (eui-hon), or matchmaking process, followed by the 납채 (nap-chae) date-setting and the 납폐 (nap-pye), where the families would exchange valuable items. After this the 결혼식 (Gyeol-hon-sik), or wedding ceremony, itself would take place – followed by a bridal procession and an introduction to the groom’s family.
Nowadays, Korean 결혼식 are almost exactly the same as what you’d expect Western ones to be like, however despite contemporary Korean weddings being extremely similar to western ceremonies, there are still many traditional elements woven into every part of the wedding, both during and after.
At the wedding, the couple’s female family members will usually wear 한복 – with the bride’s mother wearing pink 한복 whilst the mother of the groom wears blue.
It’s customary for the groom, with both his and his bride’s family, to greet the guests while the bride waits in a seperate room and meets with her friends who use this opportunity to shower her with compliments.
When it comes to modern Korean 혼례, there is neither a gift registry nor present giving, and guests are not expected to pay for their place at the reception; rather, all guests bring white envelopes with money inside. Those who are closer to the couple tend to give more money.
Culture Tip: If you are invited to a Korean wedding, keep in mind that many will have a receptionist that writes down the name of every guest and how much money they brought as a gift, so the newlyweds can later find out who gave what.
Just like western weddings – after the 결혼식, everyone will move to the reception area, or 피로연장 (Piloyeon-jang). Here, guests can take photographs, enjoy a meal, and celebrate the newly married couple. Overall, the ceremony and reception doesn’t last for very long, so guests can often leave feeling refreshed and happy rather than exhausted from all-day wedding activities.
Although traditional wedding elements aren’t mandatory amongst Korean couples these days, it’s still quite common for newlyweds to have a 폐백 (Pye-baek), which is a widely practised wedding tradition that symbolises the importance of family and unity.
Unlike the 결혼식 and 피로연장, the 폐백 is only attended by the newlyweds and their parents. Usually held a few days after the actual wedding, this custom involves many interesting traditional elements, which include the bride’s family showing respects to the groom’s family by presenting different food as gifts – this is called 이바지 (i-ba-ji), meaning to ‘contribute’.
During the end of the 폐백, it’s customary for the groom’s parents to throw chestnuts and jujube, or dates, at the bride while she uses her 치마 (chima), or skirt, to try to catch as many as she can – this represents how many children she will have, which, as history has taught us, used to be the most important duty of a wife.
These days, however, this custom isn’t as crucial as it once was; it’s more about observing traditions rather than putting pressure on the bride to become a mother to many children.
Other traditional elements of 결혼식 and 폐백 include:
음과 양 (eum-gwa yang), or Yin and Yang, which represents the ideal union between a married couple – with 음, dark blue, representing the wife, while 양, the bright red component, represents the husband.
Originally a part of the actual wedding ceremony, 기러기 (ki-reo-gi) were a pair of wild geese that the bride and groom received to symbolise their roles as wife and husband, as well as the “virtues” they were expected to uphold – though nowadays live geese have been replaced in favour of wooden ones, which usually have some form of 음과 양 symbolism, such as the colours blue and red.
*Fun Fact: Since wild geese leave their mark wherever they live, they’re excellent at maintaining harmony and, most importantly, mating for life. As such, they’re seen as a perfect symbol for newlyweds.
A more culture-shocking 폐백 tradition are the use of two 닭 (dalg) chickens, that are wrapped in blue and red cloth. Either sitting on or beneath the wedding table, these 닭 symbolise the beginning of a bright and fresh marriage, and similar to the chestnuts and jujube, imply that the couple will have many children. Out of all the traditional elements, this one is least practiced.
Whether newlyweds incorporate these traditional elements into their 결혼식 is completely up to them – some couples prefer to have a Western wedding, and skip things like 폐백 and the giving of 기러기 – however, that they can still incorporate Korean traditions into their weddings if they want to is a notable example of how Korea mixes ancient tradition with contemporary culture.
Feature Image Source: ©The Bride, Photo courtesy of Ralph Honsbeek at Flickr, 11.12.2018, flickr.com