December 21 was 동지(冬至), known in English as the "winter solstice," the shortest day of the year. For many Koreans, 동지 marks the beginning of a new year because it is the day the sun begins recovering its strength after months of declining health. In fact, 동지 is also know as 작은 설, the "little new year day." This helps explain why Koreans give calendars as gifts on this day.
On 동지, it is customary to eat 밭죽 (red bean porridge), which is supposed to help drive away evil spirits. Supposedly, the spirits do not like the red color of the beans. It is also said that one must eat 밭죽 in order to age another year. At first I was not sure if this was good or bad, but then I realized that it is much better than the price one must pay for not aging another year.
Many Koreans also visit temples on 동지. In fact, I went to a temple with a girlfriend and her mother, who is a fairly famous guru (도사). Actually, it was not really a temple, but whether a set of small altars on a fairly unimpressive hillside. Here is a brief description of my trip.
We went to a place known as 대관령 국사성황당, which seems to be a place that mixes Buddhism with shamanism. There were no big temples here, just five small altars, three of which were protected by small shelters. We prayed at all of them.
We started at 성황당, which is dedicated to the god that protects the area (터의 수호신). I do not exactly know why, but the spirit of one of my girlfriend's relatives, 이항복, is also supposed to reside around this alter. 이항복 was a famous minister during the Chosun dynasty. My girlfriend's mother is supposed to have the ability to communicate with him and receive warnings and advice about the future from him. In fact, I was asked to sit by my friend's mother while she chanted, so that she could tell me about my future at different intervals during the chant. I received a few warnings and learned that my fortune would change for the better in three years. I am not sure, but I think my good fortune was conditioned on whether or not I married her daughter. Hmmmm.....
After 성황당, we moved to 용왕당, which is an open altar dedicated to 용왕님, "the Dragon King." At this altar, one is supposed to light a candle, burn some incense, and offer the Dragon King a bowl of fresh water drawn for the nearby well. I asked why this altar was not protected by a structure and was told that the Dragon King lives in the water and needs no structure.
Next to the Dragon King Altar was 칠성당, "the Big Dipper Altar." This altar was also open because the ancestral spirits to which this altar is dedicated reside in the large tree next to the altar.
After 칠성당, we went to 관음사, which is a Buddhist altar. The structure that housed this altar is bigger than the rest, but not really that big. I do not know much about this altar, except that it is more traditionally Buddhist. We just lit a candle, burned incense, and bowed three times.
The last altar we visited was 산신당, "the Mountain God Altar." I do not know much about this altar either, but I understand that the 산신 likes to travel on the back of a tiger. In fact, another name for "tiger" is 산신.
By the time we dropped my girlfriend's mother off at her house, it was dark, and I think everyone was tired and hungry. As we parted, my girlfriend's mother asked me, "혼났지요? I was confused by the question because I understood 혼나다 to mean "be scolded." Without really knowing what she meant, I answered, "No." It was not until later, when I got home and looked up the word, that I found out that 혼나다 can also mean "have a hard time." My friend's mother was trying to say, "You had a rough time today, didn't you?" which is a polite Korean expression of gratitude or sympathy.