Korea’s surprising number of “red-letter days” or holiday in May can be inspire a range of excitement and emotions. Of course one reaction might be enthusiasm, since holidays usually mean a day off from school or work and joined with family and celebrate the day off. Whatever may be the reaction reaction, it is safe to say that the month of May is one of the Korean calendar’s most festive months. In particular, May boasts a spectrum of special days that celebrate the family especially.
May is called “Family Month” in Korea for various reason. Each year, Children’s Day falls on May 5th, Parents’ Day on May 8th, and Teachers’ Day is every May 15th etc. Although, these holidays are generally inspired from foreign traditions.
Tracing from the olden days: Commemorating family days and teacher days are somewhat different. Joseon Dynasty was established in 1392 by the king Taejo, who sought to distinguish it from the preceding Goryeo dynasty. Part of this transition meant embracing Neo-Confucianism as Korea’s governing philosophy. For some 500 years, Joseon Korea instilled Confucian concepts of social order and hierarchy to dominate relationships between king and subject, and between parent and child.
Specifically, the concept of “filial piety,” or love and respect for one’s parents and ancestors, was seen as a vital family virtue.
According to the Confucian book of rites, Li Chi, at the age of seven, boys and girls must no longer mingle, and at age eight they are to obey their elders. In China some five hundred years before Christ, these milestones marked a child’s transition into adulthood. These days, it’s safe to say that Korean kids stay kids a bit longer, and May 5th is the day they eagerly anticipate every year.
Since 1923, Korea has celebrated its youngsters each May with Children’s Day. Although some joke that every day is a children’s day for Korea’s privileged youth, May 5th is when the entire family makes its way to the zoo, the amusement park, the movie theater or community center. Gifts typically accompany these outings, which is why the holiday ranks alongside birthdays as kids’ number one day.
This year, even President Lee Myung-bak and First Lady Kim Yoon-ok joined in the fun by inviting 350 underprivileged children to the Blue House to celebrate Korea’s 89th Children’s Day—after all, they’re also parents and grandparents!
Although a day dedicated to indulging youth may seem inconsistent with Confucian ideals, Bang Jeong-hwan (1899-1931) founded the holiday in 1923 to promote love and respect for youth. The visionary children’s book author argued that children were the future of Korea, which at the time was a Japanese colony. Bang urged adults to “speak to children with respect, and speak softly.” The founder of a children’s welfare organization and Eorinee, a monthly magazine named after the Korean word for child, said that individuals who were treated with respect in youth would grow to become respectful adults. Sadly, Bang died young at just 31 years, but the legacy of his beloved holiday lives on.
As previously mentioned, respect for one’s elders is at the core of Korean culture. In fact, it predates even the Joseon era’s Neo-Confucian philosophy, with historical records from the Silla Dynasty (57 BCE-935 CE) and folksy tales from who knows when consistently emphasizing the tenets of filial piety.
Far from a cultural tenet of a bygone era, to this day, local governments recognize exemplary citizens who have sacrificed to take care of elderly or invalid family. The city of Suwon in Gyeonggi Province hosts a “filial piety” festival each October in honor of one of Korea’s most impressive sons. That son just happened to also be a king. King Jeongjo, a visionary reformer who reigned during the late 18th century ascended to the throne after the murder of his father, Prince Sado. Sado was accused of being mentally-ill by court factions whose motives were probably less than pure. Although Jeongjo is remembered as ushering in a Korean Renaissance, he spent much of his 24-year reign trying to rehabilitate his father’s honor. Both in life and death he expressed his filial piety. Jeongjo chose to be buried alongside his parents at a tomb site near Suwon in a tomb less ornate than his parents’, despite the fact that he was a king.
Although the parents of today may fantasize for a daughter or son as adoring as Jeongjo, they’ll probably make do with a small gift on Parent’s Day. Korea’s children may get to celebrate first, but since 1973, May is also when the nation celebrates its mothers and fathers. On May 8th, children present their parents with a humble red carnation or more practical gifts like clothing or nutritional supplements. As they did on Children’s Day, families frequently will make a trip to parks or museums, which often waive admission fees.
On May 15th, Teacher’s Day completes the May family days trifecta. While teachers aren’t blood relation, per se, they’ve long occupied a special place of honor and dignity in Korean society. Again, education is a highly prized part of Neo-Confucian societies, which is why the nation’s educators have been honored with a day of their own since 1963. I take part last year in my school at Korea.
Each May, Korean celebrate three holidays—important one's are celebrating children, parents and teachers.It's difficult to believe it but that’s not the end. Another official red-letter day, Buddha’s birthday, are being celebrated this year on May 10th.
The month of May also includes two more days of note—Married Couples Day on May 21st and the Rose/Yellow Day on the 14th. One of Korea’s many pseudo relationship-themed days, on this day lovers exchange roses while singles donning yellow attire commiserate other over meals of yellow curry. In Korea, from the formal to the whimsical, there’s a holiday are absolutely for everyone.