Most girls I know have at least thought about their big day—their wedding. From dresses to colours to the first song choice, a girl has at least dreamt about what their wedding will entail. For me this fall has been the season to be thinking. No, I’m not getting married (yet)! This fall has been a popular season to tie the knots for many couples. Just among my church friends, October and November have been the hot months with four couples tying the knot and two more couples diligently planning.
As a little girl I’ve always enjoyed looking at old photos of my parents, especially, their wedding album. The most fascinating and intriguing part of the pictures is the drastically noticeable visual and cultural differences between the Western style ceremony to the traditional Korean ritual ceremony.
My parents held their main ceremony in the Western style and followed it up with the Korean traditional rituals, as many Koreans do nowadays to balance out the generational differences with continuing the tradition of our culture. As an American with deep-rooted Korean heritage, I have always contemplated on my choice of a wedding ceremony when my time came.
The traditional Korean wedding ritual is known as Taerye, which literally means the Great Ritual. The ritual is time consuming and carefully planned out by both families of the bride and the groom. Taerye, unlike the Western counterpart of a wedding, is a celebration of the union between two families not just two individuals. It embodies many different symbolic acts that represent specific values of Korean tradition rooted in Confucianism, highlighting family, social status and the continuation of a great lineage.
Similar to many long-standing civilizations, Korean marriages were often forged between two families with similar socio-economic levels. The bride and groom rarely knew each other and in many cases, families, fortune-tellers and matchmakers brought them together.
I cannot say that is the case in Korea and within Korean American communities here in the U.S. now. Through change in time, Korean communities have come to respect the decisions and choices of individuals. Many couples choose to forego the entire Taerye process and replace it with the Western wedding, but others, like my parents, choose to respect the traditions by keeping the part of Taerye where you pay respects to elder family members of each side and in return blessed through tossing of fruits and exchanges of wisdom.
This stage of Taerye is called Pyebaek (bowing to Husband’s parents) where the bride bows four times to her new parents-in-law symbolizing respect to them, their ancestors and the wisdom of the elders. After bowing is over, the parents-in-law give words of wisdom and monetary gifts. The most important and symbolic stage of Pyebaek is when the parents-in-law throw dates, chestnuts and jujubes, which symbolize fertility and children into the bride’s out-skirt apron. The success of this stage is determined by the elder’s aim and the bride’s catch. Due to its symbolic significance many couples in Korea continue on the tradition often extending the bowing and the exchanges of blessings to the bride’s parents and to the elders of both families.
In many societies, through time, traditions diffuse and phase out to match the societal desires and needs of the upcoming generation; it is the case for Korea. But I’m hopeful to say that this tradition will continue.
The process may change and deviate from the structures that were in place before, but I think the emphasis on continuing the tradition of respect and the importance of the family will continue.
I think there is something to be said of everything, and Korean traditional wedding is no exception. Certainly, as a culture, traditions will change in form and in style but traditions are there in place for a reason. As a culture, we have kept the important aspect of the tradition of Taebaek— structural importance of a family and paying respects to the elders for their wisdom that can only be gained through time.
With that said, I’m going back to my theoretical wedding list while smiling over the wedding album of my parents for the 300th time! Happy Holidays!