The beginning of a new year is filled with symbols, starting with the rice cake soup we have on the first morning of the year. The plain white rice cake has become the first dish of every new year instead of the colorful rice cakes, because white is the color that goes best with the new morning of a new year. The Japanese also help themselves to a bowl of rice cake soup called ‘Ojoni’ on the first morning of each year. The Japanese also believe that they age a year with a bowl of rice cake soup. It seems like many people around the world wish for a good year with food. However, Korea has a unique New Year’s custom that is not found anywhere else. It is our expression of our wishes for other people as if they had already come true. This custom originated from our ancient belief of the existence of spirits in words. Our unique custom of wishing words came from our belief that words have a miraculous power and that our wish will come true if we say it desperately.
The origin of wishing words shows the underlying concept of fortunetelling. The olden people believed that everything in the universe is a sign of good or bad fortune. Thus, they created various fortunetelling techniques to read the signs. The most popular of these techniques is Cheongcham(聽讖), which means ‘listening to the signs.’ Cheongcham foretells one’s fortune in a new year through the first sound the person hears while wandering outside in the early morning on New Year’s Day. If he hears a calf crying, he will have a good harvest; if he hears a crow, he will suffer from an epidemic; and if he hears a dog barking, he will encounter many thieves. Cheongcham is one of the New Year customs commonly found in the old texts, including in ‘Dongguksesigi,’ and wishing words are extensions of Cheongcham with a broader meaning. What is interesting is that people actively highlighted auspicious sounds instead of passively listening to any sound. A major example of this is that each household in every village planted cottonwood trees, which are the most favorite trees of magpies. The sound of magpies at the dawn of a new year must have been the best sign of good fortune. The activeness of Cheongcham later drove people to say something nice to others beyond just ‘hearing’ sounds. Where else can we find such great development of a primitive belief? We find it in the spiritual blessings we share with one another on each New Year’s Day.