Korean Weddings 101: A Basic Guide to Wedding Customs in Korea
Weddings, weddings, weddings! With so many celebrities tying the knot these days, you might be wondering what wedding customs are like in Korea. We’ve noticed some questions in the comments section – for sure, Korean weddings can be confusing for those not in the know. Let’s take this time to talk about how they’re typically done!
The big proposal and the ring?
Don’t be fooled by what you see in all the K-dramas! The down-on-one-knee proposal actually isn’t standard in Korea. Instead, the topic of marriage is one which both partners decide and plan jointly. While this seems like the most equitable setup all around, it doesn’t lend itself naturally to those suspenseful fairytale proposals that you see in TV shows and movies.
This also means that engagement rings are not so common here. Some of the younger generation are starting to pick up the custom, staging a romantic proposal after the agreement has been made. But the woman may or may not wear the ring after the wedding, and both parties may opt to skip the wedding rings entirely. This again is a generational thing – older Koreans tend not to have wedding rings at all.
Falling cherry blossom petals and a heartfelt declaration of love from Lee Seung Gi in “The King 2 Hearts“
Meeting the families
So if the telltale sign of engagement isn’t the ring, then what is? If you’re at all familiar with Korean culture, you can probably make a guess – it’s when the two families meet each other. In Korea, marriage is considered a union not just between two individuals, but between two families. Before any engagement is announced, the two families are expected to meet each other. Typically, this is a somewhat stiff and awkward intro at a private room in a restaurant. But rest assured that both families have done the research on each other in advance, so if they’ve agreed to meet in the first place, that’s a good sign. (In other words, we’ve never heard of a K-drama-like family-to-family showdown!)
But before the two families meet each other, the couple has to meet each other’s parents. In the U.S. and in many other countries, it’s not considered a big deal to introduce your new boyfriend or girlfriend to your family early in the relationship, but in Korea, the parents will not typically meet any significant other… except for the last one. So if you’re being introduced to the parents, chances are that your partner is gearing up to make it permanent.
Hopefully your prospective parents-in-law never judge you as much as the parents in “Bride of the Century.”
One of the most common comments we’ve read in response to celebrity weddings is that the bride must be pregnant, because the period between the engagement announcement and the wedding seems too short! Based on netizens’ response to Won Bin and Lee Na Young‘s recent nuptials, it seems that even Koreans can get confused on that point as well. But that’s just how it is. Weddings do not take a long time to plan here, so you can easily have a very nice wedding in just three months. Year-long engagements are uncommon. So next time you see someone making a guess about a shotgun wedding, you can tell them, “This is typical in Korea!”
Bae Yong Joon and Park Soo Jin would like you to chill with the rumors!
The reason that Korean weddings are easy to plan is because the whole industry is built around speed and convenience. Most Koreans get married in wedding halls, which are venues built expressly for weddings. If you sign a contract with a wedding hall, they’ll take care of almost every detail imaginable, right down to the flowers, food, and music. There aren’t going to be any problems with finding the perfect chairs, table linens, or caterer – it’s all a package deal, where what you see is what you get.
Although wedding halls are a very convenient place to get married, the efficiency and speed leads to some drawbacks. You may be celebrating your special day with several other brides and grooms who are getting married in the rooms next to yours. The staff may be cleaning up and clearing you out as your ceremony is wrapping up, so they can prepare for the next wedding to take place. There are more upscale wedding halls that offer more privacy and time, but these will cost more.
Generally, most celebrities do not get married at wedding halls. Instead, they will celebrate their big day at a house wedding venue or an upscale hotel. (For celebrities, the preferred house wedding venue is The Raum, and the top hotel is the Shilla Hotel.) However, whether it’s a house, hall, or hotel, all three venues will tend to share similarities in terms of atmosphere and structure.
Despite the prevalence of Christianity in Korea, church weddings aren’t extremely common, and any other setup (such as Won Bin and Lee Na Young’s outdoor wedding, or Hyori and Lee Sang Soon getting married at home) is downright unique!
Wonder Girls’ Sunye had her lovely ceremony at Lotte Hotel.
As we’ve mentioned, signing the contract with the wedding venue will take care of most of your concerns. The rest will be taken care of in the “seu-deu-meh” package – short for “studio, dress, makeup.” Have you ever seen those gorgeous engagement photos of Korean celebrities? You might think those fancy pictures are limited to the world of actors, singers, and models, but absolutely not! Most Korean couples getting married will book a photography session with a studio that offers picture-perfect backdrops such as vintage-looking European cafes or flower gardens. The studio will do their best to make you look like a glamorous celebrity, but for those who find these photos bland or cheesy, there’s also the option of portraits or informal Western-style candid photos.
Whatever you choose, you’ll also get dress and tuxedo rentals. Most Korean brides do not buy wedding gowns – women here tend to be similarly sized and prefer the same styles, so rentals are a more economical option. For the cost of buying one dress, a bride can instead rent three to five dresses, to be worn between the engagement photos and the wedding day. There’s a huge range of options as well, from bargain locally-made dresses to top-tier Vera Wang and Monique Lhuillier gowns.
Also included in the package are makeup and hair sessions. And yes, the makeup and hair is for both the bride and groom.
Girls’ Generation’s Seohyun and CNBLUE’s Yonghwa had a lovely (mock) engagement photoshoot for “We Got Married“
The Korean tradition is that both sets of parents (who are probably sharing the wedding costs) will invite everyone they know, regardless of whether the bride and groom have any idea who they are! This can easily result in weddings with over 500 guests, leading to a stressful day for the newlyweds – because they need to greet everyone who showed up. Some of the younger generation are beginning to break away from tradition in favor of more intimate ceremonies, which they may pay for themselves. Luckily, wedding halls and hotels offer rooms of different sizes, so you can celebrate in style regardless of whether your guest count is 50 or 500!
If you are attending a wedding in Korea…
If you’ve opened up that beautiful cream-colored wedding invitation and are looking around for the RSVP card, stop looking! Due to the traditionally large guest count, RSVPs are neither customary nor necessary in Korea – wedding halls will typically base their expected headcount on a percentage of the total number of invitations that have been sent out. Still, if the couple requests an RSVP, do the right thing and give it to them!
If you’re attending a Korean wedding, probably the one thing to know is that you should bring a gift of money in an envelope – there are no wedding registries in Korea, and money is not considered a tacky gift, just standard protocol. The amount depends upon your relationship to the bride or groom, and perhaps your age as well. The best way to gauge is to ask around discreetly to see what your peers are giving the couple to be. But if you’re a young person attending the wedding of a friend, you would typically be expected to shell out 30,000 won. Try to find the cleanest, crispest bills you can find. If you’re planning to give 50,000 won (for a particularly close friend), then give one 50,000 bill as opposed to five 10,000 bills.
When you’re at the wedding, you may be surprised to see a lot of variation in guests’ outfits. The old rule that only the bride can wear white isn’t a common rule in Korea, and some people even show up in sneakers and jeans. Still, we advise that you play it safe and wear an outfit that you would typically expect to see at a wedding – skirts, dresses, or suits for women, and suits for men.
What your wedding would look like if the guests consisted of almost all of SMTOWN
It is difficult to write about gift-giving customs because Korea has experienced a lot of cultural changes over the past forty years, and the customs that were once deeply entrenched may no longer be practiced as widely as before. For example, Korean tradition dictates that the family of the groom buys a house for the newlyweds, while the family of the bride buys the furniture and household items, as well as gifts for the parents of the groom. This custom can be seen in the context of people living with their parents well into adulthood, and parents living with their children as they grow older in age. However, these days, many young people prefer to live on their own once they find a job, and many parents do not necessarily wish to shoulder the burden of buying an entire house for their children. So while this tradition is still practiced today, it is nowhere near as widespread as it used to be.
However, the families of the bride and groom may still exchange smaller gifts, such as luxury watches, jewelry, handbags, suits, and hanbok. This is again dependent upon the preferences of the two families, and ideally both parties will reach an agreement regarding their expectations in this matter.
While Western custom dictates that it’s bad luck for the bride and groom to see each other before the wedding ceremony, in Korea there’s no such concept. The bride and groom will travel to the wedding venue together. Before the ceremony, the groom will join the parents in the lobby to greet the guests who have arrived, while the bride will sit in her own special bridal room where guests may come, chat, and take photos with her.
Musical actress Kim Sa Eun greets guests in the bridal room before her wedding to Super Junior’s Sungmin.
The ceremony… and reception?
Above all, weddings in Korea are short and sweet. Whereas in many parts of the world, the wedding is all about the bride and groom, in Korea, the guests’ preferences always come first – and very few guests want to spend an entire day at someone’s wedding. Therefore, the ceremony will take no longer than a half-hour. It will be presided over by an officiant and an MC (both likely to be personally known by the couple), who oversee the rituals with lightning speed and efficiency. There’s usually no bridesmaids, flower girls, ring bearer, or groomsmen. Instead, there’s a speech, a brief musical performance, the kiss, and… that’s about it. A meal will be served immediately after the ceremony. On whole, you can expect to leave the wedding within two hours after arrival.
And yes, that means there’s no reception. With the possible exception of some very upscale weddings, there will be no dancing, no speeches, and no DJs or live bands. Guests are expected to eat their meals, greet the happy couple, and leave.
Go So Young and Jang Dong Gun exchange rings
The Korean ceremony
After the wedding is a short Korean ceremony called pyebaek, which is for family members only. The bride and groom will wear special wedding hanbok and will bow to their parents who are seated behind a low table stocked with traditional and symbolic wedding foods such as chestnuts, jujubes, and dried persimmons. The parents will bless the newlywed couple, and there will be an entertaining round of “catch the jujubes and chestnuts” to predict how many daughters and sons the couple will have!
As for whether guests wear hanbok to the wedding, the answer is generally no – except for the female relatives of the newlyweds. The mother of the bride will typically wear a pink or purple hanbok, and the mother of the groom will wear a blue hanbok. The rest of the female relatives may or may not wear hanbok, according to preference.
Eugene’s wedding hanbok during the pyebaek ceremony
So that’s your typical Korean wedding! We may not have covered everything, so feel free to share your thoughts or ask questions below! Also tell us, how do Korean weddings compare to weddings in your home country?