In Korea a wedding is traditionally known as honrye and was originally the product of two families coming together to form a martial alliance rather than the union of two individuals. Modern weddings though are a blend of western influence as well as ancient Korean Confucianism. As such Korean weddings have certain unique customs and traditions that are as deeply symbolic as visually striking.
Like most traditional cultures, Koreans too have a tradition of arranged marriages were families were instrumental in fixing the marital partner for their son or daughter. Even though young people now have more say in their personal lives, the system of arranged marriages is not completely done away with. Contemporary Korean families arrange informal meetings between two young people known as seon but ultimately it is up to the couple to decide whether they want to get married to each other. It is not necessary that a single seon should lead to marriage; most young people succeed in finding a suitable spouse only after dozens of seon meetings with different individuals. Following the initial meeting, the couple typically date for several months to a year before the actual marriage.
Korean Pre-wedding customs
A few days before the wedding, the families will go through exchange of several kinds of gifts. Traditionally these would include gifts of household goods known as ‘honsu’, gifts of clothing and jewelry between the bride and groom variously termed ‘yedan’, ‘chedan’ and ‘paemul’, gifts of cash from the groom's kin to the bride known as ‘cholgap’ and from the bride's family to the groom's friends known as ‘hamgap’ as well as ritualistic exchanges of food and wine between the two families termed ‘sangsu’. However today most of these have fallen out of practice and modern Korean weddings include the gift of ritual silk known as ‘yedan’ from the bride to the groom's significant kin and the negotiation of the purchase price of the gift box or ‘hamgap’ delivered on the night before the wedding to the bride's house by friends of the groom. Also before the wedding takes place, a bride must participate in a traditional introduction ceremony where she is accepted into the groom’s family.
In Korean culture certain animals like ducks and geese function as symbols of prosperity, longevity and fidelity and are thus incorporated into weddings. The duck especially is known to mate for life and so in the olden days, the groom would give his prospective mother-in-law a live goose to represent his fidelity. However, now the gift of a live goose has been replaced by a wooden one.
The wedding attire in Korean culture is highly gorgeous; the dresses of both the bride and groom are usually of silk and intricately embroidered. Indeed historically weddings were the only time when commoners could be expected to put on such rich clothes. The bride wears a light green wonsam and an elaborate hwarrot or flower robe. Underneath, she wears a traditional robe. On her head, she wears a black gem-studded cap and on her feet, she puts on white socks with embroidered shoes. Her wedding ensemble also includes three red nickel-sized circles to ward off evil spirits. Finally the bridal sash incorporates the image of the crane, a symbol of long life in Korean culture.
The groom too is dressed richly. He wears a robe of dark green damask with embroidered auspicious symbols in gold and a tall black cap headdress made of silk.
These day most Korean couples have a twin ceremony – a westernized one which involves the exchange of wedding rings and where the bride wears a white gown while the groom is dressed in a black tuxedo. This is then followed by a traditional Korean ceremony on a smaller scale for which the bride and groom change into their cultural wedding attire.
Sharing of wine
Traditionally a Korean wedding would take place at the bride’s house. However now they are organized in hotels or banquet halls which have special ‘wedding rooms’ and which are decorated with themes and motifs for the wedding. The wedding ceremony known as ‘kunbere’ takes place before a long table. While taking their vows, the bride and groom bow to each other. The most important part perhaps of the Korean wedding ceremony is the sharing of the wine by the couple. A special kind of Korean white wine known as ‘jung jong’ is poured into cups made from two halves of a gourd. Traditionally the bride’s mother is supposed to fashion these cups out of a gourd grown in their own garden. After the bride and groom have taken a sip of the wine from their cups, the wine is then mixed, poured out again and then offered to the couple to sip as part of their wedding vows.
Korean Post-wedding rituals
The most important ritual observed after the main wedding ceremony takes place at the groom’s house. There the bride is introduced to her in-laws and she offers them dates and jujubes as symbol of her future children. The groom’s parents in turn offer the bride tea and at the end of the ceremony they toss dates and chestnuts at her as a blessing for fertility which she attempts to catch them with her skirt.
The Korean wedding reception
While the traditional Korean wedding ceremony is usually a small-scale and intimate affair attended by the family and only close friends, the wedding reception is a celebration on a much larger scale. It is usually hosted in a hotel or a banquet hall where the couple’s friends and guests arrive to wish them good fortune. Even though a multitude of rice cakes, dumplings, dips and meats may be served at the wedding feast, the highlight is undoubtedly the noodle banquet known as kook soo sang; this is because in Korean culture noodles symbolize longevity and prosperity. At the banquet, Korean sake is taken in shots and wheat noodle soup is eaten to wish the couple a long, happy life.