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Culture Etiquette Superstitions & Myths

JESA 제사 – Why do Korean people offer food to the photos of the ancestors?

CONTINUED FROM Visitor’s guide to a Korean funeral – Learn the rules and etiquette to avoid social faux pas.

WHY DO KOREAN PEOPLE OFFER FOOD TO THE PHOTOS OF THE ANCESTORS?

제사 JESA – Remembering and honoring the ancestors.

Jesa 제사 scene from Neongkuljjae Gulleo-on Dangshin 넝쿨째 굴러온 당신 (My Husband Got a Family, KBS 2, 2012)

If you like watching heart-warming Korean family dramas like Neongkuljjae Gulleo-on Dangshin 넝쿨째 굴러온 당신 (My Husband Got a Family, KBS 2, 2012), where extended families of many generations live together under the same roof (which was typical until recently), there is this scene where everyone in the family gathered around a huge, low dining table on which a wide array of traditional Korean dishes and seasonal fruits were presented in front of the photos of the ancestors, followed by a series of rituals like burning incense, bowing, offering rice wine, and sticking a spoon upright in a rice bowl. What you just saw is a traditional memorial ceremony for ancestors called jesa 제사. Technically speaking, jesa can refer to any type of memorial ceremony, but they are categorized by when they are held. Here is a lengthy list of rituals and their dates you can remember before-hand.

제사 JESA - Remembering and honoring the ancestors.

– FOR UP TO YOUR GRANDPARENTS OF THE PATERNAL SIDE.

– IF BOTH HAVE PASSED AWAY, A SINGLE JESA IS HELD FOR BOTH, ON THE DEATH ANNIVERSARY OF THE GRANDFATHER.

Charye 차례Seollal 설날 (Korean Lunar New Year) and Chuseok 추석

(Fall Harvest Festival, 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar).

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Gijesa 기제사 – On the night before or morning of the ancestor’s death anniversary

Sije 시제 – Every season, for ancestors who are the fifth generation and beyond.

Myoje 묘제 – Memorial ceremony held at the gravesite

Seongmyo 성묘 – On Hansik 한식 (April 5th) and Chuseok. It’s a memorial ceremony performed at the gravesite of the ancestors. On top of the memorial ceremony, families tidy up the grave by cutting the weeds and mowing the grass.

Hansik of The Day _ Korean Traditional Memorial Ritual, Jesa By Arirang Culture

ORDER OF THE CEREMONY

Truth be told, the rituals are quite complicated and even the most orthodox Confucian families have a difficult time remembering everything, not to mention the average Korean. But getting bogged down in the rules and having a headache is not what the ancestors want. What they would really want to see is everyone getting together, having a good time while remembering, and honoring the ones that came before them. In light of preserving the tradition, though, here is the typical order of the memorial ceremony.

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Kangshin 강신 – “Inviting The Souls Of The Ancestors” 

All attendees stand before the altar while the eldest male descendant, jeju, kneels down in front of the memorial altar. He burns three incense sticks and bows twice. (Sometimes the bowing is skipped). The jeju kneels again. Another person (usually the wife) gives the jeju an empty cup with a saucer and pours it (about 30% full). The jeju then takes the cup and makes a circle three times over the incense. The liquor is poured into a bowl filled with sand, called 모사 mosa, in three equal pours. The empty cup and a saucer are returned to the wife. The jeju makes two full bows. It’s believed that the incense invites the souls of the ancestors from the above and the liquor invites those from the underground (which the sand is symbolic of).

Chamshin 참신 – “Greeting The Souls Of The Ancestors” 

All attendees make full bows (twice for men and four times for women). 

Choheon 초헌 – “First Offering Of Rice Wine” 

The jeju makes the first offering of rice wine, followed by his wife. At the conclusion of the first ritual offering, the jeju makes two full bows and the wife makes four.

Aheon 아헌 – “Second Offering Of Rice Wine” 

The second eldest male descendant within the family (the next eldest sons or sons-in-law) makes an offering of rice wine, following the same procedures. 

Jongheon 종헌 – “Final Offering”

The offering of rice wine continues until no high-ranking male descendants are left. 

Sapsi 삽시 – “Food Serving” 

The meals are served to the ancestors by the jeju, by sticking a spoon upright in the middle of the rice bowl. 

Yushik 유식 – “Receiving of the Offerings”

All attendees leave the room or turn away for a few minutes so that the souls of the ancestors can enjoy the offerings. 

Cheolsang 철상 “Removal of Table” 

The table is cleared by first blowing out the candles and removing the dishes on the table, starting from the innermost. All the attendants make two full bows, sending the spirits off.

Eumbok 음복 “Receiving Blessings”

Attendees share the food offerings removed from the table and partake in the feast, and it symbolizes the receiving of the blessings from the ancestors.

제사 JESA - Remembering and honoring the ancestors.

WHAT’S OFFERED ON THE TABLE?

When it comes to what goes on the table, there’s no one right answer. It’s different from region to region, and from family to family. With the change of times, what was not available in the past, such as the non-traditional Korean dishes and fruits like pizza and banana started to appear on the table, because the idea is that at the end of the day it’s the deceased ancestors whom the memorial ceremony is held for, and if they liked them when they were alive, then why not serve them what they liked? Of course, Korean traditionalists would frown upon the setup. With that said, let’s look at a typical table setting for a Jesa ceremony to see what it looks like.

Row 1 – Rice and soup, but on Seollal, tteokguk 떡국 (rice cake soup) is served instead. When serving liquor, it has to be clear (e.g., filtered rice wine). Songpyeon (half-moon shaped rice cake) takes the place of liquor and rice during Chuseok.

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Row 2 – Various kinds of meat, pancakes, and fish. When you put the fish, keep the head facing east (right). Place the meat on the left side, and the fish on the right side.

Row 3 – Various soups. Place in the order of meat soup, tofu soup, and fish soup. Place soy sauce between them.

Row 4 – Vegetables, dried fish, and shikhye 식혜 (sweet rice drink). Place the dried fish on the left (west). Shikhye goes on the far right.

Paldo Rice Punch 238mL X 12 Cans Gift set, clear, 8.04 Fl Oz (Pack of 12) [Amazon]

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Row 5 – Place fruits, cookies, and desserts.

RESTRICTED FOODS

Peaches because they expel ghosts & spirits.

– No fish ending with “chi” such as kkongchi 꽁치 (mackerel) and galchi 갈치 (cutlass fish) because it’s believed that fish without scales are “cheap.”

– Red beans, food with gochugaru 고추가루 (red pepper powder) or garlic seasoning cannot be served because ghosts and spirits hate red color and garlic.

WHY ARE THE FOODS PLACED IN SPECIFIC ORDER? ARE THERE ANY RULES?

Banseogaengdong 반서갱동: Rice on the west, soup on the east (opposite to the living).

Jeokjeopgeojung 적접거중: Roast meat in the center.

Eeodongyukseo 어동육서: Fish on the east and meat on the west.

Dongdoseomi 동두서미: The head facing the east and the tail facing the west.

Baebokbanghyang 배복방향: Dried fish with its back upward.

Sukseosaengdong 숙서생동: Cooked vegetables on the west and raw kimchi on the east.

Hongdongbaekseo 홍동백서: Red fruits on the east and white fruits on the west.

Jwapouhye 좌포우혜: Dried fish at the left end and shikhye at the right end.

Dongjoseoyul 동조서율: Dates on the east and the chestnuts on the west.​

Joyulishi 조율이시: Starting from the left, place dates, chestnuts, pears, and persimmons. 

Although their origins are unclear, the above rules have been passed down as a custom by posterity, and some of the rules contradict each other. For example, if you place red dates on the left, following the joyulishi rule, you are violating hongdongbaekseo rule which dictates that red should go east (right). Are they not only complicated to follow? They often cause quarrels among family members.

WHAT ARE THE ANCESTRAL TABLETS?

Shinwi 신위 is one of the objects representing the presence of the dead, such as portraits or memorial tablets. Originally, it was made of wood, and normally it was not easy for most families to build a shrine. Therefore, jibang 지방, a disposable shinwi, was made before the rite. It contains the information of the name and official position of the deceased on a piece of paper and was burnt after the memorial ceremony. These days, portrait photos are a more popular choice.

WHY IS A FOLDING SCREEN SET UP DURING A JESA CEREMONY?

Byeongpung 병풍 is a folding screen with poetic calligraphy written across it which is set up facing north, as it’s the direction for the dead. Not only does it cover other household objects like the TV during jesa, but it is  symbolic of the presence of the dead because, in traditional funerals, the body of the deceased was put behind it.

Wood Screen Room Divider Korean Palace with cherry blossom Folding Screen 6 Panels [Amazon]

WHY ARE ONLY WOMEN RESPONSIBLE FOR PREPARING FOR JESA?

While many look forward to the long holiday, it’s a time many married Korean women fear – the never-ending kitchen labor, spending all day in the kitchen, making a large feast for jesa and charye held for their husbands’ ancestors! It’s because when a woman gets married in Korea, she becomes part of the husband’s family, and the priority is always put on the husband’s family matters. For example, visiting the home of the husband’s parents is essential during the holidays, while that of her parents isn’t. Inevitably, pent up emotions rise to the surface during the holidays – tensions between the in-laws and labor inequality are all contributing factors to the divorce rate that skyrockets after the holiday season. It’s a Korean drama cliche where couples wrangle with each other in a car on their way back to Seoul from their visit to the husband’s parent’s home in the countryside.

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HOW DO KOREANS WITH DIFFERENT RELIGIONS HANDLE JESA? 

Korea is a free country where freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution. When it comes to jesa, Catholics (the Catholic Pope formally recognized it as a civil practice in 1939) and Buddhists practice the memorial ceremonies, while Protestants do not (as it could be viewed as “worshipping” other deities besides the Lord). So the Protestant members of a family are excused from partaking in the ritual.

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