After living in Spain for two years, I’ve come to love any festival involving fire. Maybe it’s my inner pyromaniac, or the fact that burning things is generally illegal in my country. It seems the Spanish can’t have a festival without fireworks, bonfires, or setting something or other on fire… and the Spanish have a LOT of festivals
The Koreans on the other hand save up their pyromania over the year and let it out in one big blast on Daeboreum (대보름) or literally “The Great Full Moon” Festival. Going by the lunar calendar, Daeboreum is the first full moon of the New Year, 15 days after Seollal (설날) or “Lunar New Years.” There are a lot of traditions and customs associated with Daeboreum, like climbing mountains to see the moonrise, eating ogokbap (오곡밥) or healthy 5 grain rice, or cracking nuts with your teeth to guarantee good health in the New Year (probably a big hit with the dentists).
Of course, my favorite Daeboreum tradition is that Koreans like to burn things. Back in the day farmers would burn the dry grass on the ridges between the rice paddies while children would put burning charcoal in a tin can with a string and whirl it around. This was believed to drive away evil spirits and bring good harvests, but in actuality this helped fertilize the rice fields and rid them of insects and parasites.
These days it’s more common for towns and neighborhoods to hold bonfire parties for Daeboreum, with pungmul (풍물) or traditional Korean folk drumming and ganggang sullae (강강술래), Korean folk dancing and games. A few places in Korea burn entire fields of grass on mountainsides as part of their festivals, occasionally with tragic results.
Like a lot events here over the years, I’d heard a lot about Daeboreum typically the day AFTER it happened. I’d always curse under my breath and vow to mark it on my calendar for the next year so I wouldn’t forget. Invariably, a year would go by I’d miss it yet again. This year I finally got lucky. Last Sunday my friends were cycling back from Bomun, noticed the ruckus down by the Bukcheon River by Dongcheon-dong and gave me a call. We missed the lighting ceremony and speeches by local politicians (it’s election season), but we did catch some of Dongcheon-dong’s own Pungmul (풍물) Drumming troupe doing their thing around the fire.
In the mean time, I’d gotten word from another friend that there was actually a bigger bonfire party over by the Seocheon River across from the bus station. Once the drumming troupe started packing up their gear, we split for the bus station to see what we could see. They must’ve used a lot more gasoline on this fire, as it had burned down to embers by the time we arrived.
The party was a lot more happening over here with chestnut vendors, Makgeolli (막걸리) tents and a constant barrage of Roman candles. We did manage to catch a bit of the Ganggang Sullae (강강술래), with about a hundred people holding hands and dancing around the fire in a big circle. By this point I’d traded in my DSLR for shooting video with my Pansonic Lumix. Hopefully I’ll get the video edited and posted up here in the next week or so.
Just so nobody lets it slip by again next year, according to the lunar calendar in 2011 Daeboreum will fall around Feb. 17th. If nothing changes from the past few years, the main bonfire party for Gyeongju will be in the gravel parking lot by the river across from the Shiwae (Intercity) Bus Terminal. The party will start kicking off around 5:00 or 6:00 pm. Don’t forget to mark your calendars.