For many modern Koreans, the Seollal – or Lunar New Year – is a time to gather with extended family to feast, remember the past year and to look forward to the prospects of a better year ahead.
But during the Joseon era – things were a little different. People still gathered together to feast and wish one another good luck in the coming year; however they also battled with, not only the malevolent spirits that were believed to surround them, but also with one another.
The celebrations held at the palace were quite extensive. Elaborate performances with small boys, dressed in red and representing exorcists, chased away the various misfortunes that harassed the Korean population. Among these evils were tigers, demons, agricultural parasites and internal worms. At night, large numbers of rockets were shot into the air – their burning embers lighting up the sky like stars.
The common people also did battle with demons and misfortune from the previous year. The night before the New Year, people carefully safeguarded their shoes for fear that a demon cat would step upon them thus sealing their fates to many misfortunes or even death. Hair and fingernail clippings were burned to keep them from the grasp of nefarious demons who might use them to take control of the owner’s soul. This also had the effect of warding away the demon feline.
The sky was also filled with flying stones. Large teams made up of rival villages and guilds battled one another with stones and clubs. Protected by straw and leather armor, the combatants fought until one side was forced to leave the battlefield – usually a large field near the city. Many were seriously wounded in these melees and occasionally there were deaths but no one was tried for them as they were considered part of the game.
But these weren’t the only battles – there were also kite battles. Horace N. Allen, the American Minister to Korea in the late 19th and early 20th centuries wrote:
“[The Korean] kites are painted squares of paper stretched over a light bamboo frame, with a hole in the centre of the paper. The cord is wound on a reel having a long handle, which…the boys manipulate with great dexterity, being able to send their kites almost out of sight with a little wind. The great attraction in this sport consists in [the] sawing in two the cord of a rival. When the kite falls there is such excitement in the chase to get it, that even old men catch the contagion and hobble off in search of the unlucky kite – finders being keepers. Men indulge in this game very generally, using large kites with stout cord on which has been rubbed a mixture of rosin and powdered glass or fine sand, to aid in sawing off the cord of a rival.”
There was also a selfish side to some of the old New Year traditions.
Affixed to some kites were lists of evils that had befallen the household of the flier. He would deliberately set his kite free allowing it – and his misfortunes – to fly away. Who ever found the kite also found a new set of misfortunes for the following year.
Another way of passing away one’s bad luck was through dolls. Small dolls of straw were made and adorned with a couple of small coins. Pieces of paper which recorded the evils that the maker had experienced the year before or hoped to avoid in the upcoming year were attached to the dolls. The dolls were then thrown into the streets to be trampled upon by the oxen and pedestrians and, if the maker was lucky, were picked up by some unfortunate person tempted by the money. The evil was then transferred to the new owner of the doll.
Friends and neighbors sometimes deliberately cursed one another with misfortune. Just before sunrise on the New Year, people would often call out their neighbors’ names. If the neighbors responded they were considered to have bought the callers’ heat and they would thus suffer twice as much from the heat in the following summer while their tormentors would suffer only half as much.
One man’s good fortune is often at the expense of his neighbor.