SPECIAL FEATURE

Weddings: Korean Ways to Tie the Knot SPECIAL FEATURE 3 Getting Married in Korea Today: From Honsu to Honeymoon

Follow the customs or be more original? When planning their weddings, many brides and grooms find themselves having to walk a fine line between tradition and individual expression. Since it is a matter directly linked to wedding expenses, it can be quite an agonizing dilemma.

These days, couples are increasingly opting for a more intimate wedding with close friends and family members at an outdoor venue rather than a runof- the-mill wedding hall.

Until the late 1990s, when I got married, it was the norm for young people to live with their parents until marriage. Unless there was an unavoidable reason, such as school or work being too far from home, marriage was considered the only legitimate reason for moving out of your parent’s house. Back then, I often met people who wanted to get married just for the sake of escaping parental control.

Times may have changed, but it is still every bride’s wish to look her most beautiful on her wedding day with the perfect make-up and a glamorous wedding gown.

We are living in a different age now. I know a fair number of singles who are living alone. There is no fixed age at which people choose to venture out on their own since it is possible once they achieve financial independence. This may have played a part in the changing attitudes toward marriage among young people who increasingly view it as an option, not a must. The concept of “the right age to marry” is also diminishing.
There are also quite a number of people who want to marry but cannot, or will not do so, largely because of the hefty wedding costs. A wedding can be a heavy burden for most young couples; they either have to work like a dog to save up enough money, or be blessed with well-off parents. According to Statistics Korea, the average cost of marriage in 2015, including housing, amounted to 250 million won (approximately US$218,000).

Times may have changed, but it is still every bride’s wish to look her most beautiful on her wedding day with the perfect make-up and a glamorous wedding gown.

Hurdle in the Road to Marriage
Hurdle in the Road to Marriage A man and a woman meet, fall passionately in love, and decide to tie the knot. The romance ends here! Once the parents meet and the wedding date is set, reality hits hard. Looking for the right venue and finding the perfect wedding dress — there is an endless list of things to do.
Adding to the burden is the preparation of honsu, which are goods needed for marriage and gifts exchanged between the families of the bride and the groom. The gifts sent by the bride’s family to the groom’s family are called yedan and typically include bedding for the parents-in-law, silverware, clothes, a handbag, and money. The range of items varies depending on the family’s financial situation. The gifts the groom’s parents give to the bride are called yemul. They are placed inside a wooden chest called ham, together with the honseoji (marriage letter thanking the parents for giving their daughter’s hand in marriage), and sent to the bride’s family. A few days before the wedding, the groom’s friends carry the chest to the bride’s house, where the family greets them with a feast of food and drink.
The gifts inside the chest include jewelry, a watch, a handbag, a purse, clothes, cosmetics, and shoes, varying according to family customs and affordability. To display their wealth, upper-class families may include pricey items such as fur or a leather jacket and high-end jewelry. This custom of exchanging gifts and money can, at times, become a source of conflict due to a mismatch of expectations; when relatives put in their two cents, adding fuel to the fire, it can cause a fall-out between the two families. A tradition that is supposed to be observed with decorum and respect becomes the seed of discord, and in the worst case, the wedding may even be called off. To prevent such a calamity, some people choose not to exchange gifts or money at all.
The biggest concern for couples is finding a place to live. In the past, the house was generally regarded the responsibility of the groom while the bride prepared the necessary household items that went in it. This hasn’t changed much today, but more couples are sharing the burden due to the exorbitant housing costs.

This custom of exchanging gifts and money can, at times, become a source of conflict due to a mismatch of expectations; when relatives put in their two cents, adding fuel to the fire, it can cause a fall-out between the two families.

Jewelry Trends
Back when I got married, parents were usually the major decision makers when it came to choosing marriage items and gifts. Neither the bride nor groom had much say in the choice of watch and wedding ring. Nowadays, couples are not so willing to meekly comply with the wishes of their parents or in-laws; they tend to actively voice their opinions, wanting to make their own choices. So, some parents give money to the bride and groom, leaving them to buy whatever they want.

The traditional custom of the groom’s friends carrying the ham (chest filled with jewelry and other gifts for the bride) and “selling” it to the bride’s family has nearly disappeared.

As for the wedding gifts for the bride, three, five, or seven jewelry sets were common in the past. The basic set is a diamond set consisting of a diamond ring, earrings and necklace, as well as a gold, sapphire, or ruby set. But most brides these days prefer a simple diamond or pearl set, which can be worn casually, rather than colored gemstones that tend to look old. Some also prefer to spend all the money on a larger diamond ring, but flashy, over-the-top pieces with a giant rock are a thing of the past. Practicality has become the general trend as brides prefer jewelry that is more appropriate for everyday wear over pricey pieces that will end up in the safe or deep inside a wardrobe. For example, some couples prefer to exchange just a simple Cartier wedding band. Pearls were shunned in the past as they were thought to resemble teardrops, but now they are in vogue again due to the preference for jewelry that can be worn casually. According to jewelry industry statistics, around five million won on average is spent on jewelry and watches for wedding gifts. Tiffany & Co. and other top brands account for the major share of wedding ring sales in Korea. Those who are less affluent crowd the Jongno 5-ga jewelry district in the old city center of Seoul looking for “Tiffany-style” wedding bands.
Whereas it was customary in the past for the bride and groom to choose watches from the same brand and of similar design and price, this is not the case anymore. Interestingly, brides today tend to place greater importance on watches compared to the past when the focus was more on rings or necklaces. A Rolex watch used to be by far the most popular wedding gift for grooms. But this is no longer so, as people now have greater access to diverse brands. One reason why luxury watch sales in Korea are among the highest in the world is their demand as wedding gifts.

The traditional custom of the groom’s friends carrying the ham (chest filled with jewelry and other gifts for the bride) and “selling” it to the bride’s family has nearly disappeared.

Bridal Dress and Ceremony
Western-style weddings have become the norm in Korea, but the tradition of pyebaek (bride’s formal greetings to her parents-in-law) is still observed after the ceremony. In the past, the bride left her parents’ house after the wedding and went to her in-laws’ and performed the rite there, but now this is done right after the ceremony at the wedding hall where a separate room for the rite is prepared. The bride changes from her Western-style wedding gown into Korean traditional wedding costume and makes deep bows to her in-laws, and then offers them liquor. In return, her in-laws give her chestnuts and jujubes, which are symbols of fertility.
As all eyes are on the bride at the wedding ceremony, the wedding dress naturally attracts great attention. Wedding gowns with a long majestic train are passé; now, rather than overblown dresses, brides prefer designs that allow them to express their individuality. When consulting with designers, instead of relying solely on their advice, many brides these days come equipped with a pretty clear sense of what they want, thanks to ideas and information from the internet and social media. The current trend is that there is no particular trend. What’s also interesting is that the boundary between everyday fashion and wedding fashion is blurring under the growing preference for bridal dresses that can be used later. Lee Myungsoon, owner of a wedding dress shop that has been in operation for 27 years in Cheongdam-dong in southern Seoul, says, “I switched from renting out to selling some time ago. Brides no longer want grand and ornate wedding dresses that they will only wear once, but look for designs that can express who they are.”
The change in wedding dress trends is closely related to changing trends in venue. People are increasingly opting for a more personalized wedding held outdoors in the countryside, a garden, or a house rather than the one-size-fits-all wedding hall. Even at a wedding hall, couples wish to create an intimate atmosphere and express their personality through the interior decoration and attire.

WEDDING PLANNERS’ EVOLVING ROLE

Professional wedding planners first appeared in Korea some 20 years ago and they now play an indispensable role in the marriage process. From choosing the wedding venue, wedding dress, make-up, photographer, and wedding gifts to planning the honeymoon, busy couples entrust everything to the planner instead of doing the legwork themselves.
Lee Mi-ja, director of the wedding consulting company Marry On Wedding, based in Gangnam, Seoul, says, “People are usually recommended wedding consulting firms by a married acquaintance or family member, but they can also check the company website for the vendors it uses and the wedding dress or jewelry brands it is affiliated with to determine the level and quality of service. Consulting firms will try their best to accommodate the clients’ wishes and work within their budget. After all, that is our role.”
Lee, who has been in the business for 10 years, says she sees increasing polarization in the industry, like any other. “The middle range has decreased drastically. Now, it’s either an extravagant wedding or a minimalist, frugal wedding. For example, in the case of wedding rings, except for the very few who purchase several pricey gemstone rings, most settle for either a simple platinum or 18-carat gold wedding band. There’s even a brand that specializes in couple rings.”
Planners typically work on a project for several months, during which time they constantly communicate with their clients to find out their preferences and tastes, and guide them in making decisions. At times, they may play the role of counselor because even a minor disagreement between the bride and groom or among family members can lead to a crack in the relationship. “Sometimes a couple will express their gratitude before leaving for their honeymoon, or I will receive a little token of appreciation. It’s these moments when my job is particularly rewarding,” says Lee. “On the other hand, it breaks my heart to see a couple break up right before the wedding. I hope that the role of wedding planners will expand to include not only finding the perfect wedding dress or recommending vendors, but also offering advice on marriage, in the future.”
A growing number of Korean universities are establishing wedding-related departments since wedding planning as a profession is expected to evolve further in a positive direction.

Simple Wedding, Luxurious Honeymoon
In the past, the wedding was an occasion for the parents to announce to relatives that their child had grown up and was starting a family, and in some aspects, to display the family’s wealth and stature. Therefore, the higher the social standing and financial means, the more lavish the wedding. Perceptions are changing, though, as the children of this generation become parents. Accelerating this change is the belief among young couples that they, not their parents, should be in charge of their own wedding; their focus is on content rather than formalities, on personal preferences rather than custom. Unlike typical weddings of the past where guests flocked to the wedding hall, placed their monetary gift at the reception desk, and hurriedly exchanged hellos while not even bothering to attend the actual ceremony, many couples today opt for a more intimate wedding where they share the special day with a small group of family and friends celebrating the beginning of a new chapter in their lives.

At Western-style weddings in Korea, it is common for the mothers to enter the hall ahead of the bride and groom, and light the red and blue candles on the altar before taking their seats.

After the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom change from Western-style wedding clothes into traditional wedding costumes for the pyebaek rite; they make deep bows to the elders in the groom’s family, who in turn throw chestnuts and jujubes, symbols of fertility, into the bride’s skirt which is held out in front.

There is also a growing tendency to keep the wedding simple and instead splurge on the honeymoon. Lim Mi-sook, editor-in-chief of The Wedding, says, “There’s this funny story that until recently, the Maldives was the most popular honeymoon destination among newlyweds in Korea because of an ad that said the island nation was in danger of sinking in a few years. Hawaii is hot these days. Korean couples like to indulge a little when it comes to their honeymoon. They seek luxurious resorts with upscale facilities, particularly a pool villa.” Couples these days also prefer to plan their own trips instead of following the wedding planner’s itinerary.

Lee Yoon-jung Editor-in-Chief, Noblesse
Ahn Hong-beom, Kim Dae-hyun Photographers

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