Won Kum’s Hwan-gap Celebration 10/24/09

In the old days of the Joseon Dynasty before the rise of today’s prosperity in the Land of the Morning Calm, many people died before completing a life cycle.  A complete life in Korea consists of living though the zodiac calendar’s sexagenarian cycle.  The cycle consists of 12 animals rotating annually with the involvement of five elements that are associated with five planets.  Multiplying the 12-year animal cycle by the involvement of the five elements/associated planets (wood/Jupiter, fire/Mars, earth/Saturn, metal/Venus, and water/Mercury) equals 60-years (12×5).  In a nutshell that is how the 60-year cycle comes to be.

While it is no longer unusual for a  Korean person to live to be 60-years-old, the custom remains strong among many in the Korean population to celebrate Hwan-gap as an important mild stone in their lives.  My wife reached that age here in Korea, and her Korean family went into action several months ago to begin planning her Hwan-gap celebration.

It is my understanding that there is some controversy as to the proper age for celebrating Hwan-gap.  Some say 60 while others say 61.  My wife’s two older brothers believe the proper time is the 61st year when using the Korean method of counting birthdays.

Under normal circumstances the children of the celebrant plan everything, but in Won Kum’s situation her sisters assumed that role with a modicum of participation from her. Our children live in the United States and could not attend due to the long distance, their busy schedules, and other responsibilities.  They all expressed their desire to be here and sent their mother a generous sum of money in honor of her attaining a full life cycle.  Since our children found it impossible to attend, Won Kum’s family modified her Hwan-gap celebration to take that circumstance into account.

As the culture of Korea is very family oriented & heavily influenced by Confucian philosophy, the Hwan-gap celebration revolves around the family as much or more than the individual, though the individual receives abundant honor for his/her accomplishment .  The person of honor sits at the head of a long table decorated with an abundance of stacked fruit, rice cakes, nuts, and other traditional food arranged in an ordered way set by custom.  On the day of the celebration family & friends bring gifts of money in an envelope & present their gift to the Hwan-gap celebrant.  The celebrant receives the gift, thanks the gift giver, and hands it over to a trusted person–usually one of the children–to be opened later out of sight of the gift giver and gift receiver.  The gifts are to be used to defray the cost of the party buffet, beverages, entertainment, and any other party expense.  What’s left provides a personal gift for the birthday celebrant.  While the party is expensive, most of the time there is plenty left over for a bountiful gift of money.  In Won Kum’s situation her youngest sister, Won Suk, became the treasurer with assistance from her other sister, Won Wha.

The difference between a Korean birthday celebration and an American one is subtle yet compelling.  The Korean birthday celebrant is more responsible to see that family & friends are enjoying themselves than the birthday celebrant in America.  During the Hwan-gap birthday festivities, I observed my wife serving several of the the party guests by filling-up their beverage glass & encouraging them to return to the buffet for more food.  In America the birthday recipient is front & center in all the activities with less emphasis on the guest.  The chore of entertaining the guest in America is left mostly to the party organizer.  Despite this difference in emphasis between the East & West, both cultures have a common goal: they want everyone to enjoy themselves during the celebration.  Personally, I don’t see either one as better than the other, only different.

On the day of the party Won Kum & I traveled by bus to Gildong, one of nine administrative divisions located in the Gangdong-gu District of Seoul, East of the Han river.  Taking the bus it took us a little over an hour to arrive at our destination, stopping often to pickup & discharge passengers.  Exiting the bus we walked about 20-minutes through mostly an outdoor market & past several apartment buildings before arriving at her youngest sister’s 4th floor apartment.  Shortly after our arrival her youngest sister prepared our lunch, a traditional Korean meal of noodles, kimchi, soup, & fruit.  After lunch the women folk played a traditional card game until time to prepare for the party.  I took a nap and later watched the women play several hands of hwat’u.  Soon enough the time came to prepare and dress for the party, and so we did.

My wife looked lovely as she arrived at the Hwan-gap party in her honor.  Looking younger than her age & excited about the honor she was about to receive from her family & friends, she walked into the building dressed in the traditional Korean hanbok dress & shoes.  Early on the family & guestsDSC_0073_1 assembled slowly in the hall.  For a moment this situation caused me a brief fright as I feared only a small number of my wife’s family & friends would show-up.  My fears soon dissipated as the party crowd gained in size & momentum and ignited into a full-fledge Hwan-gap celebration worthy to behold by anyone.  Everyone brought their envelopes, a hearty appetite, & ate enthusiastically.  One of the well known proverbs in Korea goes like this: “While two are eating, one could die and the other one wouldn’t know.”  (Korean at a Glance,1988, pp 270 ) This proverb tells of the special relationship Koreans have with their cuisine, and the importance of serving a good meal at Hwan-gap.

The party gained additional energy and fun when the picture taking began.  As family members gathered at the table of honor for pictures, those in the picture and those not in the picture began to vocally interact with one another.  Those not in the picture started playfully supervising & encouraging those in the picture to smile, to move this way & that way, and to laugh hilariously at those in the group who closed their eyes, frowned, made funny faces, etc.  Those who were about to be photographed yelled backed playfully as the bantering between the two continued throughout the picture taking.  Everyone wanted to be photographed & counted as present during this important celebration.  All kinds of family combinations came upfront to be photographed with my wife & me for posterity.    All the bantering & commotion happened in an air of good fun & spirit.  We all laughed so hard that tears came to our eyes.

After 3-hours of frivolity the general party came to an end.  After saying goodbye to friends & more distant relatives at the party, the immediate family members walked to a nearby karaoke establishment and continued the party in a large room with all the electronics available for a good-old karaoke time.   As we watched the words of the songs & singers on a single large screen, several small screens were available for those unable to view the large one.  Without hesitation Won Kum’s oldest brother grabbed a microphone and belted out the first song of the evening, a family favorite sing-along-song.  For the next couple of hours different family members belted out their selections.  Singing, dancing, & yelling reigned supreme as family members clapped for the high scores made by several of the singers.  Regardless of their ability, all singers received thunderous applause for their efforts if not for their skill.  Not being much of a dancer myself, I danced with my wife on a slow song that accidentally happened to be the last song of the evening.  At the end of the song, I gave her a shallow dip that brought forth a delightful laugh and a pleasant smile, a nice memory to conclude the celebration.  Accompanied by her younger sister & husband, my wife’s niece drove us home in her Samsung auto and dropped us off at our front door.  Upon entering our apartment door a memorable Hwan-gap celebration came to an end.  Blogger: garland dale

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