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South Korea / Wedding Traditions in Asia

Korean Wedding Customs: You May Kiss the Bride & Pose for a Photo!

A wedding is a happy and special time for a couple. Even more so they get to experience first hand the one of a kind nature of a Korean wedding. Not all weddings are the same, but in Korea, there is an appreciation for uniformity and set ways of doing things. I believe a person’s wedding is always special and unique. But here are some things that often do follow a certain set pattern when it comes to Korean weddings!

If you’re attending a Korean wedding in the near future, then this article is a must read.

The venue: Korean wedding hall

 In the Western world, weddings can be held almost anywhere, most commonly though, a church or place of worship. Though many Koreans are some denomination of Christian and will have their wedding at a church, most Koreans of any religious affiliation will have them at wedding halls, hotels or convention center spaces. Wedding halls are venues that more or less look like a church but stripped of all the religious paraphernalia and imagery. So there is a raised walkway for the couple, an altar of sorts and other things like this, but no crosses or crucifixes.

chinese tea

Money envelopes

A big part of Korean weddings is the giving of chukuigeum (축의금) or wedding money. Cash is given at weddings as opposed to gifts. This is money that is used by the families of the bride and groom to pay for the wedding hall or venue for the wedding. The leftover money is for the new couple to enjoy on their honeymoon! The sum ranges from 30,000 Korean Won (25 USD) to 50,000 Korean Won (45 USD) but upwards to way, way more depending on the guest! The bills should be crisp, new bills and placed in special envelopes made just for weddings, usually with the Hanja (한자/Korean Classical Chinese characters) for “Congratulations on your marriage” printed on them. This money also pays for the buffet which is customary at Korean weddings, and damn are they good!

The buffet: Korean wedding food

Because the wedding is often booked at a venue where the space is rented for a few hours, the buffet is sort of a dine and dash! After the ceremony, the guests will go to the dining hall and begin enjoying the buffet. As fast as possible! Because as soon as the end time of the wedding is reached, everyone clears out immediately. My wife and I had barely finished the last of the wedding rituals that take place after the ceremony and greeted the guests before we could actually sit down and eat. And by the time we sat down to enjoy the free beer and soju, beef ribs and other goodies, everyone had pretty much already left!

The pre-ceremony

Many weddings are highly orthodox and orchestrated by a staff team who make sure everything is PERFECTLY right according to (their) standards. The pre-ceremony includes guests entering the main ceremony hall and turning in their chukuigeum to the families of the couple. The bride and groom or each of them separately, will have photos taken by a photographer and greet the guests as they enter. The taboo of the groom seeing the bride before the wedding does not appear to be a thing.

The main ceremony

To begin, a Korean wedding will probably be facilitated by an MC, who reads out to the crowd what is happening and also prompts the different steps of the wedding ritual. First, the mothers of the bridge and groom will light candles together on the altar or dais. After that, the groom walks out to the front of the altar, next, the bride accompanied by her father is presented. The bride and groom’s parents sit on either side, the mothers will both wear Korean folk clothes or hanbok (한복). The fathers will usually wear a suit or tuxedo and both sets of parents will wear white gloves to represent purity. Next will follow bows and hugs to and from both sets of parents, exchanging of vows, cutting the cake, the groom singing a song of love to the bride (the microphone stopped working when I sang mine, maybe for the benefit of the guest’s ears!). Next, the couple, after prompting by the mc, kiss, hold for the photo, and have a lovely procession off to the applause of their guests. The mc announces that the rest of the guests may go on to the buffet while close family and friends may stay for more photographs with the couple.

Traditional wedding, Pyaebaek

I was lucky enough to experience the traditional Korean wedding ceremony, known as pyaebaek (폐백). The whole wedding may be done in the traditional style, or others may be split between the Western style and Korean style ceremonies. For our specific case our pyaebaek took place after the Western ceremony. Though it can also be held a few days after the official wedding. Pyaebaek only includes the couple and close family (though our friends stood outside and took photos) and takes place in a small room designed to look like a Joseon dynasty room. Complete with murals and cushions on the floor and a table covered in a variety of different symbolic foods and snacks. Ours included a pre-cooked chicken decorated with paper to look like a pheasant and covered with jujubes, which will play a role later.

Korean wedding dresses

The bride and groom, will be dressed in the fine hanbok of a Joseon era king and queen. The colors may differ for the groom’s regalia but the bride is almost always dressed in a red gown and robe, the color of the Phoenix or Vermillion Bird in Chinese mythology, paradigm of female energy and female counterpart to the emperor of the animals, the dragon, paradigm of masculine energy, who is blue or azure or blue-green, the color of the groom’s regalia. My regalia was also blue, but I have seen men in violet regalia as well.

The ritual continues with a series of bows performed by the couple to one another and then to both of the couples parents and perhaps some other close relatives as well. We also bowed to my wife’s paternal uncle and aunt. A special bottle of cheongju (청주/청주술/special rice wine) or fine soju (소주/hard rice wine) is then poured into fine metal crafted cups and presented to each set of parents and to the couple themselves. The couple then get to sit in the seat of honor while the family performs bows to them. The parents may also make speeches and offer words of wisdom to the newlyweds.

Throwing chestnuts & Jujube

Next for the fun part! The bride and groom will hold out a long, wide, white piece of embroidered fabric like a net. The mother and father of the groom will then throw chestnuts and jujubes, representing children, one representing boys and the other one girls. The couple then tries to catch as many as they can and count them up to see how many children of each gender they will have! A jujube is also placed in the bride’s mouth and the groom bites the other end. Depending on how much of the jujube each one bites off, determines how much wealth each of them will earn for the household. Some traditional weddings also include a piggy back ride that the groom gives to the bride to represent how he can support her in life. Sometimes the mother, mother-in-law and maybe even grandmother will get one too! Other aspects of a full traditional wedding ceremony will include the close family and possibly friends all also wearing hanbok, the playing of traditional Korean instruments, and the bride being carried to the altar in an elaborate palanquin.

Wedding attire

Some observers may find it striking to see guests show up to the wedding in even just t-shirts or even jeans. This actually is not uncommon and is usually for more distant friends or relations. Certainly closer family and friends will show up in formal wear. The wearing of less formal attire is mostly done by children and younger people, however!

At last, the preferred wedding attire will depend on the couple and their families. If you’re attending a Korean wedding, please ask the couple or anyone who’s also attending.

Wooden ducks and tea ceremonies

The wooden ducks are a traditional gift presented to the couple. According to Korean folklore, ducks mate for life and so the presentation of the hand carved ducks wrapped in silk is meant to represent a long, harmonious and happy marriage together. In addition to the ducks, a special tea ceremony or darye (다례) presented by the groom to the family of the bride at their home may take place as well.

A wedding is a special event in a couples lives together, one enjoyed with family and friends. Korean weddings are no different in this regard! But, each one is imprinted with the uniqueness and deep cultural legacy of the Korean peninsula. I hope all my readers can get to experience the joy and culture of a Korean wedding at least once in their lives, just make sure to get to that buffet quick! Before the bride’s uncles eat all the beef ribs!

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