Traditional Korean weddings are beautiful events full of symbolism and deep rooted culture. It is considered the uniting of the Eum and Yang (Yin / Yang), a concept of opposite or contrary forces that are actually complementary, interconnected and interdependent in the natural world.
The traditions go back thousands of years and many of the old customs can be incorporated into modern weddings as a way to honor this rich tradition.
Then and Now
Like many traditional cultures, Korean marriages used to be decided solely by the bride and groom’s families. This was not only the union between two individuals but often a strategic alliance between two families. Family involvement in a marriage is still quite strong today and family opposition to a marriage, or bandae, is indeed a frequently heard word when it comes to marriage.
A special kind of arranged marriage called Seon (선) is still popular in Korea. Generally, parents arrange a meeting, but it is ultimately up to the couple to decide if they want to marry. Because the potential spouses are pre-screened by the family, there is much less of a chance of family opposition to the marriage.
It is rare that a single seon leads to a marriage and many 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. The distinction between an arranged marriage and a “love” marriage is therefore often blurred, although in an arranged marriage the families tend to be more closely involved throughout.
Professional matchmakers called Joongmae-in are still common in South Korea! Families present their son or daughter to a matchmaker, to analyze their résumé and family information for the purpose of finding a marriage partner who is compatible in social status and earning potential.
Koreans tend to keep precise lineage records, and these are sometimes listed on the matchmaking résumé. Today, it mostly matches one’s age, education, and family situations. There is always a photo attached to the resume which also plays a factor in the matchup.
In the old days, Korean weddings took place at the bride’s home on the chosen day and was more like a village festival than a private celebration.
Families, relatives, and villagers would gather together to celebrate the couple. This tradition somewhat continues to this day and it is not uncommon for a wedding to have more than 500 guests! Weddings in Korea tend to be much less formal than in the US, with a majority of weddings taking place in wedding halls that have multiple bookings per day.
These days, Korean weddings are often a combination of Eastern and Western traditions. For those who’d like to have a traditional Korean wedding incorporated into their ceremonies, there are now many options to rent packages that include clothes, food towers, screens and other items needed for the ceremony.
Here is a lovely recreation of a traditional Korean Wedding Ceremony:
While love matches are just as common if not more common than the semi-arranged Seon matches these days, many aspects of the below old traditions are still practiced in Korea. Still very common is the examining of Saju to set an auspicious wedding date and especially to make sure the couple will be compatible.
3 Steps Before a Traditional Korean Wedding
1. Matchmaking: Eui Hon
The process of finding a prospective wife or husband for ones child often involved the services of professional matchmakers who would gather information about local unmarried people and their respective social levels, education, and family lineages.
The groom’s family would send a proposal of marriage to the bride’s parents, who would either accept or decline the proposal on behalf of their daughter.
2. Date Setting: Napchae
After the proposal was accepted, the groom’s family would prepare a Saju, which specified the year, month, date, and exact hour of the groom’s birth, according to the lunar calendar, and deliver it to the bride’s family.
Finally, the entire package was wrapped with Sajubo, a wrapping cloth with red fabric on the inside and blue on the outside.
Based on the information contained in the Saju, the bride’s family consulted a fortune teller to determine the best date for the wedding.
The bride’s family then sent a Yeongil to the groom’s family that stated the wedding date.
3. Napp’ae: Exchanging Gifts
Before the wedding, the groom’s family sent presents to the bride and her family in a box called a Haam.
The bride’s family would have a small party for the group, offering them food and drink for their efforts.
The ceremony of delivering the Haam has evolved into a major event for friends of the groom, with the bearers “selling” the contents of Haam to the bride’s parents.
6 Steps in a Traditional Korean Wedding Ceremony
1. 영서례 (Young-seo Rye)
The groom enters with an attendant called gireok-ahbeom, who is carrying a wooden goose. Gireok-ahbeom hands the goose to the groom, who is welcomed by the bride’s father.
2. 전안례 (Jeon-an Rye)
Now the groom presents the goose to the bride’s parents at a small table.
3. 관세례 (Kwan-se Rye)
The couple-to-be washes their hands while the assistants attend to them. Hand washing symbolizes the purification of mind and body before the ceremony.
4. 교배례 (Kyo-bae Rye)
Now the couple faces each other and take turns bowing deeply with palms on the floor. The groom traditionally bows twice while the bride bows six times. Why the lopsided number? This goes back to the hierarchy portion of Confucianism with the husband positioned at the head of the formation, while the wife follows.
5. 합근례 (Hap-geun Rye)
The couple pledges to the heavens that they’ll be faithful to each other and fulfill their obligations as husband and wife. This is sealed with a cup of wine that’s first raised to the sky and poured on the ground. The process is repeated twice. The cups are filled once more and the couple repeats their pledges and this time takes a drink. A gourd split in half (표주박)with both halves filled with liquor are also drunk. This symbolizes the uniting of two people as one.
6. 성혼례 (Seong-hon Rye )
Finally, the couple turns and faces the attendees and bows deeply to the ground once more.
Korean Wedding Ducks
Korean Wedding Ducks are pairs of wooden Mandarin duck carvings used in traditional wedding ceremonies because they represent peace, fidelity, and plentiful offspring.
The two ducks are wrapped in colorful cloths during the wedding ceremony. They are to be displayed in the couple’s home afterwards.
As a symbol of their relationship, the ducks are positioned beak to beak.
Korean Wedding Fun Fact:
The female duck at times will have red thread or ribbon around its beak. This serves as a reminder for the wife not to nag and instead be her husband’s supporter!
These days, you might find ducks with both beaks tied with string symbolizing wisdom and patience on both sides.
The first few nights after the wedding were spent at the bride’s home. This was a very special time because it was traditional for the newlyweds to then journey to the groom’s home where the couple would live for the rest of their lives. Though this is no longer the norm, multigenerational families living under one roof is not at all unusual, and is considered a virtuous way of life.
Paebaek is the traditional ceremony to pay respect to the groom’s family by the newly-wedded couple right after their wedding. Days after the wedding ceremony, the couple visits the husband’s family to perform this ceremony. The bride brings chestnuts and dates and offers them to the parents of the groom. The fruit and nut symbolize fertility. The table will be filled with various symbolic offerings including the chestnuts, dates, and wine.
Later the groom’s parents will throw the fruit and nut offering to the bride. She will try to catch them in the skirt of her wedding hanbok. It is believed that the number of dates and chestnuts she is able to catch represents the number of children they will have.
Korean Weddings Fun Fact:
It used to be that Korean people from the same ancestral clan and sharing the same last name were not allowed to marry! In 1997, this much hated law was finally abolished.
Most Popular Traditions Still Observed Today
Today, the Western style of wedding ceremony is widely regarded as the norm, but some traditional rituals still remain very popular and add much depth and meaning to this most special of occasions.
Wooden wedding ducks are perhaps the most common way that Koreans all over the world keep some of the Korean marriage culture alive today.
Since the ducks are no longer part of a modern wedding ceremony, they are a nice wedding gift which the couple can display in their home. Many couples receive multiple pairs of ducks which can be placed in different areas of the home.
While Paebaek traditionally took place a few days after the wedding ceremony, modern couples who want to include this tradition will usually hold this part after the regular ceremony allowing for a change of clothes. While this used to be a family only event, many modern couples choose to perform the ceremony during the cocktail hour of the receptions so that the guests can watch while enjoying drinks.
In Korea, it is still very common to see a table at the entrance of a wedding manned by people whose job it is to receive wedding envelopes containing cash gifts. Koreans are very practical people and when there is no wedding registry available, cash is not only an acceptable gift, it is often the preferred gift!