Korean wedding traditions. Complete guide!
In this article, my goal is to describe some of the most popular South Korean wedding traditions. After reading this, you’ll know everything you need to organize your Korean wedding.
I have observed many Korean wedding traditions since childhood. I was born on Sakhalin island. More than 30% of the population of the capital were Koreans. My family had many Korean friends and I visited many events like birthdays and weddings. For sure, they were different from Russian celebrations, especially for kids. There were more intense brighter colors, more flowers, more people, more interesting things than I was used to see. I remember low tables, seats on the floor, a lot of tasty food.
Until now, the taste and smell of Korean food, sounds of Korean music, bright colors of hanboks are more home-like and personal to me than Russian traditions.
In this article, I would like to describe some of the most popular South Korean wedding traditions. I am far from the idea to mention all of them because there are lots of old practices and new trends which are constantly changing. Besides, old Korean wedding traditions could vary from region to region, from village to village. But after reading this article you’ll know everything you need to organize your Korean wedding.
Table of Contents
Korean Pre-Wedding Traditions
In Korean tradition, the marriage in itself is not the union of two persons but the union of two families. Many Korean wedding customs reflect this unity of families and demonstrate respect for parents. Taking into account this concept, it’s easier to understand such Korean traditions as matchmaking, an engagement celebration before the official wedding, the Korean bowing for parents, and the Paebaek ceremony.
Matchmaking or Honsimari.
Old Korean tradition divides matchmaking into two big steps:
- matchmaking itself, so-called honsimari,
- the engagement or cenchi celebration which Koreans consider as a small engagement feast before a big wedding celebration.
At a honsimari, the groom’s father, or any respectable man of the groom’s family asked if the bride’s parents agreed that the groom would marry her. The representative of the groom’s family brought gifts and treats for the bridal party: traditional food, alcohol, and sweets. If gifts are accepted and consent is obtained, the parties set the day of the engagement ceremony.
After the matchmaking, traditional Korean society considered a boy and a girl as the bride and groom. After the engagement, the couple became practically the husband and wife.
The groom’s family organized a small engagement celebration where they also presented solid gifts to the bridal party. To celebrate they invited relatives of both parties. During the celebration, the parties agreed about the most important wedding steps:
- the date of registration,
- the date of the wedding celebration,
- the format of the wedding ceremony,
- the number of guests,
- the distribution of costs, etc.
The engagement celebration was usually short and modest. Over time, for the sake of the economy, the rituals of matchmaking and engagement were simply combined.
Traditional groom-to-bride gift or hahm
Some days before the wedding celebration, the groom alone or with the help of his friends brought gifts for the bride. He placed these gifts in a box called a hahm. The parents could not take the hahm before they treated the gift giver. The content of the box could be very expensive including money and jewelry.
Nowadays most Korean-American engagement parties take place in restaurants. The parties usually exchange gifts during this celebration. Gifts remain very expensive. At the party family members of the bride and groom get to know each other. Parent-child relationships and the demonstration of respect are still a very important part of wedding preparations.
A Korean bride will surely expect a ring for her engagement. However, in South Korea, there are no strict rules to wear on an engagement ring or even a marriage ring. Many older couples don’t wear wedding bands and young Korean couples wear rings, although they are not married at all. Korean couples’ rings can be a sign of being in a committed relationship or it can be a gift for a memorable couple event.
Presentation of a wooden goose or kireogi.
One of the wedding symbols is a goose “kireogi”. Bean geese in Korea are famous for their migration routes. They migrate according to the change of seasons (following the sun and moon, i.e. “yang” and “yin”) and choose a partner once and forever. That’s why in Korea a goose is the wedding symbol of faith and inviolable vow. In the past, a live bean goose was a gift, today it is often a wooden goose. You can often find it in the bride and groom’s new home as a symbol of their faithfulness to each other.
The “cheonal-rye” ceremony or the presentation of a wooden goose takes place before the wedding celebrations. The groom presents a “kireogi” to his future mother-in-law, bowing twice during the process.
Koreans consider bowing as the expression of acknowledgment and gratitude. Traditional Korean bowing is the important part of Korean wedding traditions. Newlyweds have to bow many times during the wedding ceremony.
Traditional Korean wedding dress hanboks
In the past, Koreans wore traditional formal attires designed for special occasions — hanboks. Nowadays, they wear it on special occasions or anniversaries.
Traditional Korean wedding dress hanboks are clothes of easy soft material with bright colors and simple lines. The hanbok of a Korean bride has several layers. It consists of:
- the sokchima, a corset-like layer with a skirt attached, which is not seen,
- chima, a wrap-around skirt of red color,
- jeogori is a jacket or shirt,
- For celebrations Koreans can wear some additional pieces as the wonsam or hwalot, a ceremonial jacket that is very decorated and colorful. Or jokki, a type of vest. Or magoja which is an outer jacket worn over jeogori for warmth and style.
Men’s wedding hanbok consists of a jeogori with a loose pant baji.
Colors have a special history in Korean culture, including colors of clothing.
Hanbok’s colors relate to the “five colors theory”, which refers to the balance of yin and yang and the five elements. According to ancient Oriental philosophy, these elements are the components of the world we live in. They have each one its color:
- white is for metal,
- red is for fire,
- blue or green is for wood,
- black is for water,
- yellow is for earth.
This special meaning Koreans also used in wedding hanboks. Generally speaking, there are usually red and blue to symbolize yin and yang. Red is a common color for a Korean bride on her wedding day, a groom wears blue to complete the yin yang balance. The groom’s mother usually wears a blue hanbok with gloves on her hands. Female members of the family may also wear hanboks, as well as choose more modern clothing instead of the traditional dress.
Modern Korean wedding dresses & makeup
Nowadays, many Korean brides wear Western white wedding gowns and may change into a hanbok only for some traditional rituals during the Korean wedding ceremony.
In modern South Korea, there is the newest trend of “seu-deu-meh“ which means “studio-dress-makeup”. The Korean couple takes wedding photos in their wedding dresses some weeks before the event. The couple wants to make wedding photos as good as possible. Koreans usually book a pre-wedding photo session with full makeup (for both groom and bride) and wedding attires in a professional photo studio. They prefer to make wedding photos on picture-perfect backdrops such as vintage-looking European cafes or flower gardens. The idea of it is just to look like models in the wedding photos.
Here in California, I recommend couples make a separate photo shoot with just two of them. They can make it instead of an engagement photoshoot or in addition to that. It’s especially a great idea if a couple has a very big wedding with an intense timeline where there will be no time for couple photos.
It’s normal in Korea to rent a dress and a tuxedo for wedding celebrations. Instead of buying one expensive dress, a couple can rent three or five formal attires and change them between the engagement photos and the wedding day.
Korean wedding gifts
At Korean weddings, the guests are expected to give so-called Сongratulatory Money — cash wedding gifts. The guest brings cash in a white envelope (signed with his name) and gives it to the bridal and groom’s party before entering the celebration hall. After that they will carefully calculate the amount and record it in a visitor’s book. The idea of it is to help the newlyweds start an independent life. But not only this. A cash gift is supposed to “be returned”. Newlyweds get money when they get married, but at other weddings, they will present the same amount (it could be more, but never less) they got before.
The amount depends on the relation to the couple. Old Korean wedding traditions used a complicated correlation between the familial relationship degree and the amount. Nowadays, closer friends and relatives (family, cousins) are expected to give more.
This culture of exchanging money is widely discussed in modern Korean society. Still, 35 percent of Koreans see it as a viable option for giving and receiving reasonable sums of congratulatory money.
The Korean Wedding Ceremony
Traditional Korean wedding celebration
Old marriage customs in Korea might vary and you can read more about it here. This is a great resource for anybody who wants to go deeper into old Korean traditions.
Generally speaking, a Korean wedding ceremony was more like a village festival. Families, relatives, and villagers would gather together to celebrate the couple. The order of wedding events depended on what the family decided together on the engagement day: the wedding could be joint or separate, the registration could be at the registry office or home.
A separate wedding celebration was in the past and now it’s very rare: the wedding on the side of the bride Koreans celebrated in the morning, and in the evening men of both families could go to a banquet with the participation of the groom’s relatives. In a joint wedding, all relatives, friends, and colleagues gathered at one banquet.
Nowadays, modern Korean wedding ceremonies are similar in format to a Western-style wedding. The wedding celebration can take place in the church, also in a special wedding hall or in a hotel. A hotel usually has separate rooms for a wedding ceremony and for a reception.
In the wedding hall, there is a raised runway leading to the stage that the bride will walk on and everybody will see her. On the sides, guests’ tables will be placed. The bride’s family sits usually at tables on the right; the groom’s to the left.
The number of guests can be very large, over 150 and more. The couple invites distant relatives, friends of friends, colleagues, classmates, etc.— and it’s from both parties. Cash wedding gifts that guests present for the couple usually cover expenses for the wedding celebration.
Before the start of the Korean wedding ceremony, the bride in her gown sits in a receiving room — alone or with her parents. Guests can go inside the room to greet her and take photos. The groom meets the guests at the entrance and greets them. After the greetings, guests enter the dining room and take their seats at tables waiting for the beginning.
Korean Wedding Ceremony
The Korean wedding ceremony begins with the entrance of the mothers (of the bride and of the groom). They light the candles on the stage and take seats in the first row. After the groom enters the hall, walks on the runway, and waits for the bride. The bride comes in accompanied by her father or the oldest man of her family. He gives the bride to the groom and they together go to the place on the stage where the priest or the Master of the Ceremony expects them. After that the newlyweds exchange vows and the priest finishes the ceremony. In the end, light wedding music may be played.
It may also be a mix of the wedding ceremony and reception when waiters serve drinks and snacks for guests, who can even chat during the ceremony.
After the short ceremony, the couple can greet the audience with deep bows. There may be any entertainment: the couple’s friends sing or the couple exchanges poems or plays an instrument for each other.
Korean Wedding reception
Modern Korean wedding receptions also took some of the Western traditions: they may also have the first dance of the newlyweds, throwing a bouquet, etc. But in general, the whole Korean reception is short and sweet. Meals will be served immediately after the ceremony. It may be no dancing, no speeches, and no DJs or live bands. The newlyweds eat at their table and then greet the guests table by table. It’s important to greet every guest and express gratitude for coming. At the end of the banquet, the couple is solemnly seen off. The party in Western-style with drinking and dancing may occur later in the evening, with just the couple and friends going out on the town.
Korean wedding food
In the past, simple noodles and beef rib soup were served at Korean wedding receptions, but the trend today is toward more elaborate buffets and full-course meals.
Some traditional Korean wedding foods are:
- Noodles Koreans eat for special occasions like wedding feasts, birthday parties, or 60th birthday celebrations. They symbolize longevity in life and marriage.
- Yaksik or yakbap (literally “medicinal food” or “medicinal rice”) is a sweet Korean dish from rice mixing with nuts, honey, sugar, and some spices. It’s very popular at feasts and weddings.
- Kalbi Jim is Korean beef short ribs that Koreans eat at the wedding banquet or any special occasion for a family feast.
- Dok is a sweetened sticky rice cake that guests get as a wedding dessert alongside the modern wedding cake. By the way, Koreans find many North American-style wedding cakes too sweet.
The Paebaek Ceremony
Paybaek is a ceremony only for families, an intimate Korean wedding ritual to combine the families as one united.
Traditionally, it took place after wedding celebrations, when the married couple went to the groom’s home. Only the groom’s family took part in Paebaek.
In modern Korean weddings, the couple incorporates the Paebaek directly into wedding celebrations. It follows the wedding ceremony or reception. In the first case, the Paebaek takes place after the ceremony when guests go to the banquet hall or during cocktail hour. In the second case, it happens during the reception after guest got their desserts.
The parents of the groom take their places at a low table decorated with special food. The Pyebaek table setting usually has three items: a pile of dates connected with a red thread, a pile of beef jerky tied with red and blue yarns, and a bottle of distilled liquor. This food symbolizes yang, the positive of the two forces of ancient Oriental philosophy. The number of dishes must total an odd number which will bring good luck and prosperity for the new marriage.
The couple enters in traditional hanboks and performs a deep bow which begins standing and ends with the newlyweds pressing their foreheads to their hands while kneeling on the floor. It is also customary for other relatives to receive bows.
Afterward, the bride and groom serve wine to each set of parents and relatives after the bow. In turn, the elders offer the couple words of wisdom and blessings.
The parents throw dates and chestnuts which the bride and groom try to catch with the bride’s wedding skirt. The caught dates symbolize girls, chestnuts — boys which the bride will give birth to in the future.
There is an old ritual that ends the Paybaek wedding ceremony — the groom carries the bride piggyback around the room to show his strength in front of the family.
Old Korean rituals and modern trends are united by considering the marriage as one of the three most important rites of life passage. (two others are the 100th Day Celebration of the born baby and the 61st birthday). Young couples, especially mixed, try to combine Western wedding customs with traditional Korean rituals. With the help of this combination, they get a unique event where both cultural traditions are harmoniously implemented.