|▲ The womenfolk ensure the feast is ready, always washed down with a bottle of Hallasan (far right). Photo courtesy (left) Jeju Folklore & Natural History Museum, Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
As I arrive at the mother-in-law’s, there is that special-day buzz in the air. The women potter away in the kitchen, the men swarm the table, the children run - everywhere. It is only 10 a.m., but a glass of the local firewater has already been placed in my hand. I don’t feel coerced, but refusal is unheard of.
Seollal is one of the best opportunities a foreign groom will get to sit down with the clan and have a natter. Accepting the first soju, I can almost feel the “jeong” strengthening between us. By the second, there is the obligatory fascination with English gentlemen, umbrellas and fog. This novelty normally wears off once one of the uncles bellows support for Park Geun-hye, or her father. I customarily retreat to the kitchen and the womenfolk.
Food is essential at Seollal. On the eve of such festivals, the (almost always) women of the household become a cottage industry of productivity. For hour upon hour on the feast’s eve, one prepares the meat, fish and vegetables, another coats them with flour and egg, another fries, another packs them away. I am in awe as the food piles up.
Back in the dining room on the big day, we all sit on the floor in front of a constantly replenishing banquet. The food is the standard Seollal fare, including plenty of jeon, or fried meats and vegetables. The Jeju specialty is shark, served on such special occasions.
The first serving is always the best, being freshest and on an empty stomach. The beef and pork are great for the first round, but get heavy and oily on the third, fourth and fifth. I try to measure my intake by monopolizing the mushroom. The soju, of course, keeps flowing.
Every family does Seollal differently, but there is a general pattern. The eldest male - the patriarch - hosts guests from various connected clans at the family home throughout the day, beginning at around 10 a.m. Each family in turn visits others, perhaps sisters, brothers and cousins, until all bases are covered.
After the feast is finished at one home we rush off to the next. The kids love it. Saebaetdon, or New Year pocket money, is doled out by the elders. They sniff around pockets Oliver Twist-like, palms upturned: “Please Sir, I want some more.”
Vying with food for importance on the day is the "jeol," or ceremonial bowing to the elders. This must be done with correct form - and holeless socks - at each of the houses visited. Digestion is troublesome with such a schedule. Thankfully, when stomachs and livers are full, we bow, plonk ourselves down, exchange pleasantries, share a soju, and leave.
The “jesa,” or ancestral ceremony, is held in the early hours according to the Chinese zodiac. While for many families traditions have eased, others hold steadfast. My in-laws keep going until 1 a.m., or thereabouts, for the most auspicious time. I have never been able to summon the energy to make it this far.
Luckily for me, neither can most of the other menfolk, dozing off. When this happens I normally join the women with the washing up. Their work is never done.