Happily Ever After: A Traditional Korean Wedding
Several weeks ago, I had the honor of attending an American friend’s traditional Korean wedding. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to a couple of weddings in Korea – both celebrations of love between a dual-Korean couple – but this was even more special, as the ceremony was steeped in history and tradition that is absent from the popular Westernized weddings in Korea today.
My friend, Nicole, was gracious enough to let me take photographs at her wedding and share some of the exciting moments with you.
Traditional Korean weddings are somewhat of a rarity in Korea today. Instead, Western-influence wedding halls seem to line the streets in popular areas of town and are sometimes even tucked away in unlikely places – like in my neighborhood, tucked behind a Debec Mart.
What you may not know about wedding halls is that they sell the bride and groom an entire package for their wedding, much like a wedding planner might do in a Western country. It’s truly a mix-and-match situation: the couple is presented with a list of all the offerings the hall has and they choose from this proverbial buffet how their short ceremony will go.
Everything, from the gown the bride wears to the photos, is provided by the hall. (That’s right, ladies! Korean women don’t buy their wedding dresses; they essentially rent them from the hall. They choose one, wear it on their big day, and give it right back.) Photos are shot before the wedding in street clothes (think “engagement session”), hanbok (traditional Korean clothing), and then in wedding attire (before the wedding, gasp!).
These days, Koreans don’t typically send hundreds of paper invitations to their gatherings. Instead, they opt for the more efficient and less expensive route of sending e-invitations, often through apps like KakaoTalk.
Couples also don’t register for gifts at their favorite stores or for their new life together, as we often do in Western countries. Instead, guests bring gifts of money to the wedding for the newlyweds.
When you attend a Korean wedding, you present your monetary gift to a table host and receive a ticket for the buffet reception, also to be held in a banquet area somewhere in the wedding hall. If you don’t present a gift, don’t expect to be invited to the reception!
What might be most strange of all is how NOT QUIET it is during a Korean wedding. Everyone is talking during the entire short ceremony. The first time I attended a wedding in Korea, I was shocked! I couldn’t believe everyone seemed so uninterested in what was happening with the bride and groom.
After the ceremony, everyone sticks around to take photos with the newly married couple, and then heads out to the banquet area with their meal tickets.
Receptions for Korean weddings are also very different in that you are dining with the guests of several different weddings – the hall plays host to dozens of weddings in a weekend and they are performed in different rooms at the same time, back to back. The banquet hall is a first-come-first-served atmosphere, so you may have to search to find free seats! It’s not uncommon to not see the bride and groom at this point. Just eat with your friends and celebrate their day.
Nicole’s wedding was nothing like what I described above.
Guests met at a hanggyeo (향교) near downtown Daegu. A hanggyeo is a traditional Korean confucian school, complete with internal buildings and a beautiful courtyard. This particular hanggyeo is over 600 years old and, on other days, open to tourists.
A large tent was pitched off to one side of the courtyard, where the ceremony would take place. Before the main event, traditional Korean dancers performed drum dances and a fan dance.
Then, the bride and groom entered separately, carried in big wooden “boxes” to the wedding tent. Both bride and groom wore traditional hanbok for the ceremony, as well as some special pieces for wedding ceremonies. They were escorted by Korean helpers at all times and instructed in real time what to do during the ceremony. (Another big difference between Western and Korean weddings – there’s no rehearsal beforehand, so no one knows what they’re supposed to be doing or when they’re supposed to be doing it!)
Nicole and her now-husband, Byung Hyuk, were kind enough to hire a translator to explain what was happening during the ceremony. Both bride and groom bowed to each other several times, sipped alcohol a few times, and bowed to their parents. Nicole’s father presented Byung Hyuk’s parents with a wooden duck, an important part of the tradition. Historically, these fowl would have been real, but now, wooden replacements are used.
Later, Nicole told me the funniest part of the ceremony for her and Byung Hyuk happened at the ceremonial table. Unbeknownst to many of the wedding guests (me, included) there were live birds on the ceremony table. A hen and a rooster were bound and laid on the table and the rooster continually kept moving himself closer to some ceremonial rice. At one point, he fell off the table and had to be picked up and replaced by one of the wedding entourage! I missed this excitement, sadly.
All in all, it was a wonderful cultural experience. If you ever are extended an opportunity to attend a Korean wedding, traditional or Westernized, go! It’s a cool opportunity to see some of the many differences between our melded cultures.