Korean Marriages - Then and Now
Like in many cultures and traditions, ceremonies change or borrow from other cultures. Korean marriages are no exception and they merge both old and new customs. Family is still of top importance as it was centuries ago when Korea was an agricultural society. There may no longer be 3 generations living under one roof, but family ties remain strong. It’s now more common for married couples to begin their new lives together in a place of their own.
On the eve of the wedding (hum), the groom, bride, and her friends gather at the bride’s house. The groom’s friends later arrive, shouting and carrying lanterns to light the way and the bride’s things/dowry. Before entering they demand to be paid. When the payment of food and song is agreed upon, they enter and join with the others to celebrate. Traditionally, a chest of gifts for the bride’s family was brought by the groom’s family.
Traditionally, the groom traveled to the home of the bride’s family, where the wedding took place. Nowadays weddings often take place in wedding halls, Buddhist temples, or Christian churches. Two other main religions in Korea are Confucianism and Shamanism, which is the oldest. Sometimes a couple will have a “Western” ceremony followed by a traditional one.
Wearing white wedding gowns and tuxedos for the wedding has grown in popularity. In ancient times, commoners were only allowed to dress up in formal court attire for weddings. For women this is a short jacket with long sleeves over the shirt, a high-waist wrap around the skirt, silk shoes and white socks. Added to this, the bride would wear a head piece and a white sash, perhaps with ducks for a long and happy marriage and cranes for long life. Men’s attire consists of a jacket with loose sleeves, pants, and an overcoat. They may add a vest over the shirt and a black hat. Hanbok, traditional clothing is similar for men and women and varied for daily and ceremonial wear.
The bride’s and groom’s families prepare dishes to express their happiness and congratulations. Yin and yang is about balance and this can be seen in the selection of dishes and their color. Ceremonial food may be carefully arranged and stacked in a large cylinder 30-60 centimeters high (gyobaesang). There may be a small variety of the 250 types of rice cakes and several confectionaries, mainly made out of wheat flour or rice, honey, and oil. Korean food is fairly hearty, originally having to get people through the long work days on the farms or chilly winters. This reflects in the wedding feast where one may see marinated barbecue beef strips (bulgogi), marinated short ribs (galbi), spicy pickled cabbage and vegetables (kimchi), and a variety of dipping sauces. There is plenty of white rice, rice with vegetables and other ingredients wrapped in seaweed (gimbap), steamed or fried dumplings (mandu), and soup (kimchi, rice cake, or soybean with clams). For desert, most often there will be fruit and pastries. I should add that eating with chopsticks and a spoon in one hand is considered rude.
Cash is the most popular wedding gift, helping the newlyweds start their new lives in union. It is customary to open gifts in private so if a wrapped gift is brought, it will not be opened at the reception.
Traditionally, after the wedding ceremony the bride was brought back to the home of her husband’s family. There they would consummate their marriage and begin trying to have sons. Nowadays, more couples are going away for their honeymoon, another adopted custom. Kissing and affection is considered a private affair, so it’s rare to see these in public.