January 1st, New Year’s Day, holds significance for many cultures; stemming from hundreds of years of tradition, modern New Year’s rituals and celebrations range from the recognition of good luck and new beginnings to the warding off of evil spirits. 차례, or chalye, is one such celebration with cultural importance. As a Korean American with otherwise limited exposure to Korean culture, I have found chalye to be a useful window into the specificities of Korean customs and beliefs, especially in respect to traditional views on ancestors. My family incorporates both traditional aspects of chalye with modern parts of American life, however, so the ceremony we host does not derive entirely from ancient customs.
From my family’s own celebration of chalye, I discovered that preparation began with extensive cooking of both traditional meals and American foods. While some family members prepared homemade Korean stir-fried glass noodles, japchae, for example, others brought cupcakes from a nearby bakery. The event began in the morning after all family members had arrived with their offerings. A small table is brought out to present the food on with two candles to each side of the table. Though some families find cultural importance in the way to plate the food, the direction and placement of the food was not a concern in our celebration.
Prior to the ceremony, the front door to my home was opened to let the spirits of ancestors in to enjoy the meal. Then, in groups of two or three, family members would crouch in front of the food and pour alcohol into a small teacup. They would circle the teacup three times over burning incense before placing it on the table. Now standing, they tapped a pair of chopsticks into a metal food bowl three times before laying it across a food dish. These family members then led the rest of the family in bows, doing three deep bows in front of the table. The teacups were then emptied into a bowl and the process started again for the next group. I found that the elders of our family tended to go first in the ceremony, with the youngest members doing the final offerings.
After all family members had participated in the ceremony, metal food bowls were filled with portions of the food we had chosen and the bowls were laid out for ancestors to enjoy. Marking the end of the ceremony, a small piece of paper inscribed with Chinese lettering was burned, with the height of the smoke marking the amount of good fortune for the family. The food was then brought to the dining table for all family members to enjoy. Family members talked as they ate and some used the time to watch the Rose Bowl Parade; in comparison to the somewhat formal nature of the chalye ceremony, there was a casual atmosphere at the following party. After a few more hours of talking and eating, the remaining family members left to go home.
Chalye, although it is primarily celebrated to honor our ancestors, has become a beloved event in allowing our family to convene; the ritual is an important event marking the most significant Korean holiday of the year and is a rare opportunity for family members to meet and celebrate. Chalye marks the celebration and the meeting of both our ancestors and our family members present today, while showing the principles Korean culture value the most.
Lauren Yu, Grade 10,
Brea Olinda High School