Along with the first 100 days of a child’s life and a person’s 60th birthday, a wedding is one of the most important celebrations for South Koreans. The ceremony represents not only the union between bride and groom, but also between families. Therefore, several cultural traditions are part of it. In this article, we will go through some of the most common aspects of traditional weddings in South Korea.
Ham, the First Gift
The Ham (함) is a box filled with gifts given by the groom and his family to the bride-to-be. It can contain jewelry, clothes, money, and other items that value the bride.
In very traditional wedding ceremonies, the Ham is presented at the beginning of traditional wedding ceremonies by a close relative or friend of the groom to the bride’s family.
Traditionally, the one presenting the Ham wears charcoal or squid ink on their face. Of course, many around the world could find that this resembles blackface. As a result, this part of a traditional wedding ceremony may be quite shocking. The origin of this practice is believed to come from shamanistic cleansing rituals.
Hanbok and Colors
As much as many couples currently choose to marry in a more westernized way, the hanbok (in hangul, 한복) is the traditional dress of Korea.
The difference between the traditional hanbok and the one used in weddings is the number of layers that compose it and the richness of the embroidery and ornaments. Colors also play an important role in the ceremony. Based on the Theory of Five Colors, where each color represents an element of balance between Yin and Yang, brides wear red, and grooms wear blue.
The mothers of the future couple also traditionally wear hanboks following the colors used by their children (shades of green and blue for the mother of the groom, and shades of pink, red, and purple for the mother of the bride).
The Mothers and the Beginning of the Ceremony
In the old days, the beginning of the ceremony was when the groom went on horseback, in a kind of procession, to the bride’s house. Today, after the celebrant enters, the bride and grooms’ mothers enter holding a candle in the color of the hanboks used by their children. Upon arriving at the ceremony, the mothers light a single candle that symbolizes the beginning of the marriage.
One of the oldest traditions in South Korea is for the groom to present the mother of the bride with wooden figures of a pair of ducks. In the past, the gift was actual ducks or geese.
The birds are known for choosing a single pair throughout their entire life and accompanying it even during migratory cycles. When giving a gift, the groom bows twice to show all his respect to the bride’s family, their commitment, and their loyalty.
Purity and Union
Two other South Korean traditions are known as Gyobaerye and Hapgeunrye. Both happen during the ceremony. At Gyobaerye, the bride and groom wash their hands to show that they are clean for the wedding.
With clean hands, they bow to each other interchangeably before kneeling down. During the Hapgeunrye, the bride and groom drink traditional alcohol from gourds divided in half, symbolizing the union of the couple as a single individual. When the alcohol is finished, the couple bow again in respect to family, ancestors, and guests.
Pyebaek and Fertility Prediction
When the ceremony is over, the bride presents her in-laws with dates and nuts. The groom’s family then starts throwing the received fruits at the bride, who must try to catch as many of them as possible with her hanbok skirt.
Each fruit represents a child that the couple will have, with the dates representing the girls and the nuts, the boys.
Money as a Wedding Gift
Guests to weddings in South Korea give money as gifts. In these celebrations, it is common and expected. the bride and groom are starting a life and need resources to start their new life independently. The amount received varies with the degree of proximity between the guest and the bride and groom.
Money is not anonymous. Normally guests come with fresh, crisp bills and the amount and their name is recorded at the entrance to the ceremony. The amount you should give is not completely standardized and is often a point of stress for attendees.
Did you like to know more about wedding traditions? Which one did you find most curious?
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