Jehsah (제사)

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Photo credit: Wikipedia

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
Dec. 19, 1997

I was almost 5 years old when my family moved from Seoul, South Korea, to Chicago. Language barrier aside, I couldn’t figure out why some of my new pals were so excited about the arrival of an old man they didn’t know, who would slide down chimneys that some of them didn’t have, to drop off presents under decorated trees in their living rooms. Couldn’t this Santa person just use the door like everyone else?

When I told my parents about this crazy ritual, they explained to me that the principle really wasn’t so different from our New Year’s jehsah, which celebrates the memory of our ancestors.

Every New Year’s Day, my mother would get up around 5 a.m. and begin a four-hour marathon, cooking Korean delicacies that included bulgogi (tender marinated beef slices), chop chae (bean thread noodles with vegetables and beef) and spicy seafood. Sometimes an aunt or two would arrive early to help chop, saute, broil and fillet, while we kids slept until the last possible moment.

It was my father’s job to prepare the dining room table. At the head of the table, he would prop up photos of my grandparents and great-grandparents, as well as a picture of my eldest uncle, who died in his youth. All the food my mother prepared was set before the photos, along with goblets of wine.

Dressed in our best clothes, with my mother often wearing the traditional Korean hanbok, we would all bow to the memory of our loved ones and then leave the room for half an hour. It was a way of allowing our ancestors to have first dibs at the bounty of dishes before them. I was always pleased to find that none of the food had actually disappeared when we returned to the dining room.

After our meal, all the children would line up and bow to their elders to show respect. Each adult rewarded us with crisp dollar bills. Sometimes friends would stop by to pay their respects.

These days, I’m one of the adults to whom the kids bow. Which reminds me–it’s time to stock up on those dollar bills.

December 19, 1997

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