Mid February is a special festival in Asia, known commonly as “Lunar New Year“, “Spring Festival” or in reference to China, “Chinese New Year“. It’s arguably the biggest holiday of the year in this region of the world. You have likely seen photos of immense scenes in China with train stations packed full as urban workers return home, and vice versa. But just what is this festival exactly all about? And then, how is Lunar New Year in North Korea celebrated?
To get down to basics, the term “lunar new year” refers to the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, which measured years and months through cycles of the moon. Originating in the Zhou dynasty, such a calendar marked the new year through the emergence of the second or third moon of the winter solstice, which indicated the first day of Spring, hence the commonly used name “Spring Festival”. This means it occurs on varying dates throughout January and Feburary. In ancient Asia, this calendar set a standard for the countries around China. This included Korea, Vietnam and Japan, whom abandoned its application during the Meiji restoration. Over time, this event became infused with cultural connotations. Including ancestor worship and an emphasis on the family. The modern festival is thus depicted by the Family Reunion, as well as an emphasis on prosperity and good fortune!
How does this work in practice? Chinese and Korean cultures, strongly influenced by the legacy of Confucian philosophy, place a strong emphasis on family, inheritance and legacy. In China, every new year those whom have whom have migrated to other cities, return to their hometowns to be with their families. This creates a mass movement of people every single year unprecedented anywhere in the world! A similar practice also occurs in South Korea. In both instances, the traditional family home is of paramount significance and importance. You’ll note that throughout Asia, during this holiday you will see the price of transportation rocket and that major cities will be conspicuously quiet. In China, you’d also to find that everything is decorated in red, along with ribbons and lanterns everywhere, and of course fireworks!
During New Year in China and Korea, once people are at home with their families? What do they do? There are some unique occurrences. In line with Confucian traditions, many families may offer sacrifices to their ancestors. A family will typically serve out fruit, treats and flowers and tea in their favourite dishes on a table, offered symbolically to those who have passed before them. This will precede what is known as the reunion dinner, the most important part of the celebration. The meal will consist of food with a special symbolism, such as for example a whole chicken and a whole fish, these symbolize the unity, togetherness and joy of the family.
Of course, whilst we’re going through all these generic depictions of what the festival consists of, Lunar New Year in North Korea itself? You are likely to expect some differences owing to the different economic and political challenges which the country faces. These however, have not deterred it from being a holiday. Lunar new year remains a festival in the DPRK as it does in its neighbouring countries. Inevitably, family unions play a much lesser role, simply because, there is limited rural to urban migration in the country and as a result families tend to be quite static. Concerning dinner, you are probably wondering what is on offer here. During public holidays, the North Korean authorities typically offer an increased public distribution of food. For example, this may include giving out portions of meat and fish that would not be distributed readily around the year. Of course, the country is changing and more people now look to private markets for food than before. As a result, what is available is likely to vary wildly depending on your background in the country; if supplies are scarce, ancestral rights and sacrifices may also be affected. In Pyongyang, locals are likely to have a lot of options for their new year’s meal. In the rural provinces? Likely not as much. Around the country, Taedonggang beer and Soju are likely to be widely consumed during this time.
The DailyNK, an insider source (but one that should sometimes be treat with skepticism as it has an activist agenda), has some interesting insights into how Lunar New Year is carried out in the DPRK. Interviews with refugees state that men must go and exchange greetings with neighbouring households, children must bow to their elders, and traditional games are played along with food, singing and dancing. Typical consumption has involved pork, noodles, rice and alcohol. As we mention above, it notes that in poorer areas, not all may have that luxury however.
Either way, there is an important point to be made here. North Koreans enjoy their celebrations too. We should not forget that they are ordinary human beings whom like everyone else, want to make the most out of their lives. Lunar New Year in North Korea, as celebrated by neighbouring countries, remains an important festival which continues to draw from Korean traditions. Just how much they enjoy it and the resources they have to do so, however, remains questionable. Either way, everyone enjoys a good festival!