Korean Tradition : Jesa

10 Sept 2015 | South Korea —

I was thinking of not writing about 제사 (Jesa) since Wikipedia has already explained it thoroughly. Instead, I am writing this based on what I have observed and experienced and probably quote some information from Wikipedia. This picture I got from Koreatimes tells the proper way to prepare the table:

Basically, Jesa is a traditional ceremony practiced by Buddhist and non-believers in Korea while the Roman Catholics acknowledged this as a civil practice. There are few types of ancestorial rites such as gijesa (기제사), charye (차례), seongmyo (성묘), and myosa (묘사). Gijesa is performed at the house of the eldest son on the night before the ancestor’s death anniversary. Charye, on the other hand, is performed during the major Korean holidays – Chuseok or New Year’s Day. While seongmyo and myosa are performed in front of the ancestors’ tombs.


Two weeks ago, it was my first time to encounter an actual gijesa to offer for Danny’s grandfather. The aunts and sister-in-law fetched me at home because Danny was still at work and uncle’s (the only son in the family) house is only about 20-minute distance. We arrived there around 6 in the evening, aunt-in-law was still busy in the kitchen preparing tasty home-cooked dinner for everyone. A bit later, we enjoyed a hearty meal. At around 9pm, we prepared the offering table. Everyone helped put food such as rice, fish, meat, vegetables, rice cake, etc. on the bowls while uncle arranged them on the table and then, everyone put on socks before the ceremony. A revised rite of our family went like this: (taken from Wikipedia)
1. 강신 (kangshin) – Ritual greetings to call the spirits down.
2. 초헌 (choheon / initial offering) – The eldest male descendant makes the first offering of rice wine and show his respects by performing a ritual bow twice. Danny and I were asked to do it, too. I poured the liquor on the first bowl, Danny circled it around twice and placed it on the table. Did the same thing for another bowl. Then, we both deep (ritual) bowed twice.
3. 삽시 (sapsi / spoon insertion) – The main course is served by the eldest male ancestor, to the memorial tablet, by sticking a spoon into the middle of the rice bowl.
4. 유식 (yushik / urged meal) – The ancestors receive the offerings and partake in the meal. To do so, participants leave the room, called 합문 (hapmun). But, we just turned around and faced the wall for few seconds.
5. 철상 (cheolsang / removal of table) – All the attendants at the ceremony bow twice and the spirits are sent off until the next year. The table with the food and wine offerings is then cleared 음복 (eumbok / drink blessings) – Participants divide the sacrificial offerings and partake in the feast. Consuming the ritual food and wine is considered to be an integral part of the ceremony, as it symbolizes the receiving of the blessings bestowed upon the family.

Even though we had dinner already, we ate more and tasted the rice wine, chitchat a little before leaving uncle’s house. Chinese incense and bowing aren’t unfamiliar to me. Similar to this ritual is what we usually did few years ago during November 1 (All Saint’s Day) in the Philippines. We would meet with the whole clan to visit the tomb of our grandparents, spend the day at the cemetery, chatting and feasting with the ritual food.


More thoughts:
The eldest male children are expected to take care of their parents when they get older and weaker and by the time they pass away, the sons would also prepare such ancestral rituals at least every year especially for the traditional-oriented family. Morever, marrying the eldest son would also mean big loads of responsibility specifically the cooking part and for that, let us honor these ajumonis for their hard work and dedication.

By the way, how was your Chuseok holiday?

5 thoughts on “Korean Tradition : Jesa

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