Learning about death in different cultures is a window into learning the overall values of a people and place. For instance, anyone who has attended a Korean funeral knows that Korean families often place a great deal of importance on showing respect for the dead.
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Honoring one’s ancestors is an important part of many Korean traditions and celebrations outside of funerals as well, and is celebrated through ceremonies and rituals called jesa. The charye ceremony is one type of jesa ceremony which Koreans perform during specific holidays throughout the year.
This guide will cover the basics of the charye rites, providing you a deeper understanding of what charye is, when it takes place, and why it’s so important to many Korean families.
What is Charye?
Charye rites are a form of Korean worship and memorial that combines two important aspects of Korean culture—food and ancestral worship. Charye rites involve the preparation of traditional foods to offer to generations of ancestors at a family shrine.
Like all jesa rituals, charye is customarily only performed by the eldest male heir of a family at the altar of the oldest living male. The tradition allows Korean families to ceremonially honor their ancestors together.
What Happens During Charye?
In traditional Korean families, charye begins with each member of the family cleaning their body and donning traditional Korean clothing. Food is prepared throughout the days preceding the rite and on the day of. The food is set on a table before an altar to the family’s ancestors. Each item on the table has a specific place determined by family, city, and tradition. The setting of the table is carefully cared for by the family.
Next, a series of rituals is conducted by the family including:
- Placing a paper with the names of ancestors on the table
- Bringing soup or rice cakes to the table
- Burning the paper with the ancestors' names
These rituals and more, depending on region and family tradition, may be repeated for each generation being observed in the charye rites.
Preparation of food
The specific food a family may serve during charye varies from one region to another. That said, most families will usually prepare dishes featuring such ingredients as rice, meat, seafood, and liquor, as well as vegetables. Options may include (but are not limited to):
- Songpyeon: A Korean family is more likely to prepare this dish for charye when performing the ritual during Chuseok. This is because it’s the signature dish of the Chuseok celebration. Songpyeon are rice cookies that Korean families usually make in the shape of a half-moon.
- Bibimbap: Today, bibimbap is a popular dish even outside Korea. This dish is actually popular throughout the world. It’s a rice bowl dish featuring a variety of ingredients, such as vegetables and eggs.
- Rice liquor: It would be very rare for a charye ritual to not involve some form of alcohol. Usually, it’s a type of rice liquor. Again, this is particularly common during Chuseok, as those who make the liquor might use newly-harvested rice when doing so.
Children sometimes enjoy ddeokguk during charye, depending on the holiday. This rice cake soup has special significance when the Korean Lunar New Year occurs. According to tradition, eating the soup during the celebration will ensure a year of luck. Additionally, tradition holds that a person must eat a bowl of ddeokguk to grow a year older. Some children even try to sneak multiple bowls because they believe they’ll grow even older.
Korean families preparing food for charye are known to stress over the preparation. It’s not uncommon for those responsible for charye food prep to experience massive exhaustion after the celebration ends.
The food families prepare during charye isn’t just for them. After the rituals of offering are performed, they believe that when they eat the food, their ancestors will bless them for the next year.
A charye ritual often serves to honor the four most recent generations of ancestors. Most Korean families will perform charye rituals at an ancestral home. They might also choose a different location based on where their relatives live in the country to limit the amount of travel required.
There are some instances when families simply don’t have enough space to perform a ceremony for all four generations at once. In these circumstances, they’ll often perform individual ceremonies for each generation. They’ll start with the oldest generation and end with the youngest.
When Does Charye Happen?
Today, Charye rites are typically performed during two major Korean holidays: Seollal, the lunar new year, and Chuseok, the harvest festival. The food and preparation rituals prepared during charye rites are different depending on which holiday they are being observed.
Seollal is the Korean Lunar New Year. Seollal typically begins on the first new moon following the winter solstice. That means the exact date of Seollal can change from year to year. Sometimes Seollal occurs in January, sometimes it happens in February.
The first new moon after the winter solstice marks the beginning of Seollal. Most Koreans who celebrate Seollal do so for three days.
Korean families often perform charye rituals during Chuseok as well. Chuseok is a harvest festival that, like Seollal, occurs on different dates depending on the year.
Charye: Korean Values in Ritual Form
Keep in mind that many cultures throughout the world have New Year’s Eve food traditions. Plenty also have traditions that serve to honor a family’s ancestors. Charye is one example.
Even if you don’t directly participate in the ritual yourself, learning about it can provide you with unique insights into Korean culture and beliefs in general.
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