As with so many things in Korea, marriage celebrations have become a combination of modern practices and traditional customs. The spread of Christianity has meant that modern Korean wedding ceremonies now resemble a typical Western wedding, followed by the traditional Korean pyebaek /폐백 tea ceremony. The pyebaek is just for the immediate families and not the guests.
Traditional, Confucian-influenced weddings represent the joining of two families, rather than the joining of two individuals. In the past, the pyebaek was held at the bride’s home, but increasingly it takes place in a private room of the wedding hall straight after the Western-style wedding.
On the big day in really ancient Korea, the groom would travel to the bride’s house on horse-back, bringing with him a carved goose! Once the wedding ceremony was done, he would put his wife in a sedan chair and take her back to his place—that’s romance.
While the modern day version isn’t half as chivalrous, it is a bit less confusing. The modern day Korean wedding is split into two parts.
Western-style Ceremony – Gyeol-Hon-Shik /결혼식
While the gyeol-hon-shik has been modeled on a traditional Western-style wedding ceremony, it has been adapted in some ways to fit Korean culture. For starters, it usually takes place in a wedding hall as opposed to a church. Wedding halls are large, somewhat impersonal places and guests will likely not be near the action. The lay-out of each hall is different, but what you can usually expect is: a large room for the wedding, a buffet area, and a reception/lobby area. These will often be on separate floors. And don’t be surprised if more than one wedding is happening at a time. The buildings are typically big and can hold lots of people and multiple services. Ceremonies don’t last long. Each one usually takes less than twenty minutes!
Arriving at the Hall
Invites are given in writing and/or verbally, but both are equally valid. For this reason, Korean weddings usually have many guests. Each guest must sign their name in when they arrive to register their attendance, and then they must make a donation. This means a good portion of the wedding will be paid for by contributions from the invitees. The amount given is usually between 30,000KRW to 50,000KRW but it depends on how well you know the bride and/or groom. Some guests may contribute much more. Money should be given in a white envelope, and paper money should be new – so no dog-eared and beer stained notes, thank you! After this, you will be a given a meal voucher to use at the banquet hall.
Dress is pretty standard: the bride wears a white wedding dress and the groom wears a black tuxedo or suit. For the guests, dress is a little more flexible. To be on the safe side, it’s best for lads and ladies to suit and dress up.
In terms of language, everything will be in Korean, unless one of the people getting married is non-Korean – in which case the ceremony may be in the foreign language also.
After the ceremony, the bride and groom have their photos taken with family and friends, they cut the cake and the bouquet is thrown. However, the throwing of the flowers is fixed at a Korean wedding. The maid of honor chooses a person to catch the flowers, and then the recipient readies herself and (hopefully) catches the bouquet – scandalous! If the picture doesn’t go well, the bride will toss the bouquet again. On the plus side, this does eliminate the sorry spectacle of grown women wrestling each other over a bunch of flowers. So, perhaps it’s for the best… The bride then goes off to formally greet the groom’s parents, in private, and be accepted into the family. The guests, meanwhile, will cash in their lunch coupons.
Typical Wedding Foods
Those attending the wedding feast should expect a spread of standard Korean food. The food is almost always presented as a buffet. Listed below are some popular dishes served at Korean weddings:
u Mandu /만두: Dumplings filled with meat and/or veggies
u Gimbap /김밥: Korean-style sushi rolls (common fillings include: meat, crab, sliced omelet, vegetables and cheese
u Bulgogi /불고기: Thin, marinated beef slices
u Kimchi /김치: Spicy, fermented vegetable side-dishes (cabbage is the most popular variety)
u Doenjang-jjigae /된장찌개: Fermented soybean paste stew with vegetables
However, if the bride or groom is foreign, foods representative of their own culture might also be served.
u The wedding itself doesn’t make the marriage legal. Rather, signing the legal documents at city hall renders the marriage lawful. Read Getting a Marriage Certificate in Korea for more on that.
u To learn more about Korean foods, read WorknPlay’s article on An Introduction to Korean Food You can also read WorknPlay’s article on Korean Table Manners.
As a guest, you won’t be allowed to attend the pyebaek. But while you’re mid-way through your second or third assault on the buffet tables, you might at least want to know what is going on.
The pyebaek is only for the bride and groom and their families. Just prior to this, the married couple will change out of their suit and wedding dress and into the traditional Korean garb. Traditionally, this part took place at the bride’s house, but in recent times the pyebaek has happened immediately after the wedding ceremony. As not everyone has access to all the traditional garments and other things needed for the pyebaek, there are companies that rent everything out.
The bride wears a hanbok /한복, a traditional Korean dress, today only worn on certain special occasions. She also has red dots painted on her face and her hair tied up in a bun. The groom wears a male version of a hanbok. He may also wear boots and a special hat.
The actual ceremony involves a bowing ritual. Both the bride and groom, who are positioned in front of a table, bow in unison to the members of the family present. On the table, chestnuts and dates are laid out. The ancient version of the ceremony was slightly different: the bride would bow to her family to represent her severance from them, and then bow to the groom’s family to show her new allegiance to them.
After the completion of the bowing, family members throw chestnuts and Korean dates at the bride, who must try to catch them in her hanbok. The number of chestnuts she catches is said to be how many children she will have. The groom will then give the bride a piggy back twice around the pyebaek table to show he can support her (this also stems from an ancient tradition, where the groom would carry the wife into his home). Sometimes the mother-in-law and even grandmothers get piggy backs too! One at a time, ladies.
àNote: Same-sex marriage is not recognized by law in Korea. Therefore, wedding halls cannot be used for ceremonies. Some private ceremonies do take place, though.
Did you know?
It is ancient tradition that men should have a bachelor party every month prior to getting married. That’s right, a monthly session with the lads for the duration of the engagement. Apparently this would ensure health and wealth for the bachelor and the families who attended the wedding. It also supposedly gave the bride-to-be beauty and youth for her whole life. Tragically, this cherished tradition seems to have disappeared from modern Korean life. I have no absolutely no idea why…