The final day of the year is a big day in most cultures but Koreans take things a step further, seemingly dedicating the entire month of December to wrapping up the year.
In the run up to the Dec. 31 ringing of the Boshingak bell, December is packed with year-end events that range from heavy drinking with colleagues and friends to fortune-telling.
The Korean word for end of year events “songnyeonhoe” literally means “send off for the year” and many choose to send the year off in a sea of alcohol.
Drinking for work is a major part of Korean culture, so much so that “business boozing” was included on CNN’s list of “10 things South Korea does better than anywhere else.”
And end-of-year office parties are no exception.
Such events often involve round after round of “bombs” -- hard liquor mixed with beer -- and can carry on into the small hours of the morning at several different venues.
With large amounts of time dedicated to drinking, a wide variety of bomb-cocktails have appeared over the years, each with a catchy name.
Examples include a soju-cola mix named after the Chinese idiom that means hardship is followed by pleasure, and the “tornado” named for the action of mixing beer with liquor in a glass.
“A moderate amount of alcohol helps you relax, and people can say things they would normally find hard to bring up over a drink,” Lee Bu-rak, a 37-year old who runs a small company said.
“As long as you don’t go over the line, alcohol can also help people to bond and despite the changing trends I think it’s a part of Korean culture.”
For a growing number of people, however, drinking with their superiors in an atmosphere that is less than comfortable is something to be avoided if at all possible.
A recent survey conducted by Samsung Fire and Marine Insurance showed that only 7.6 percent of 1,867 employees preferred dinner with drinking as end-of-year events.
Nearly half said that they would prefer to either go to cultural events or to hold the office party at a family restaurant where heavy drinking is unlikely.
A survey conducted by the Ministry of Employment and Labor’s employment service in October also showed that drinking-oriented office dinners are least favored by workers. In the survey nearly 70 percent of the respondents said that they disliked drinking-oriented office dinners the most.
“Yes I enjoy a drink now and then, but I find that drinking with colleagues, including the boss, can be boring and very tiring and you can’t really say no when the boss pours you a drink” Lee, a 34-year old office worker, said declining to be identified further.
“I find it particularly irritating at the end of the year when I have a lot of personal engagements anyway. And my boss never seems to want to go home.”
As such, many companies have rolled out campaigns to keep alcohol consumption to moderate levels and office dinners short. According to the Federation of Korean Industries, 60 percent of the 60 large companies surveyed said that they were conducting campaigns to promote “wholesome” year-end events.
Of those with wholesome year-end campaigns in place, reducing alcohol consumption was by far the most popular with more than 80 percent of the firms saying that their employees are recommended to refrain from overindulgence.
And just as the notorious bomb-shots come with catchy names, so do the anti-binge drinking campaigns.
The chipmaker SK Hynix is conducting the 112 campaign that represents the idea of drinking only one type of alcoholic beverage at one venue, and wrapping up the event within two hours. Then there are the 119 and 1110 campaigns in place at companies such as Samsung Securities Co. and SK Securities Co. The campaigns recommend one type of drink at one venue, but instead of two hours the time limit is set at nine o’clock and 10 o’clock. In Korea, 112 is the emergency line for the police, while 119 is for the fire department.
Some companies such as Audi Korea offer year-end parties that cater also to the families of those associated with the company through business.
“The event is designed to allow people to spend time with their families, whom they may have neglected due to work,” an official at Audi Korea’s public relations agency said. Audi Korea’s event also includes a play zone for children to allow the whole family to join in the festivities.
Some companies including Doosan Heavy Industries and Samsung SDI have opted to do away with the year-end dinner altogether, replacing it with cultural events and even volunteer work.
Companies are not alone in moving away from the “traditional” boozing.
In recent years, more and more people have been seeking out more meaningful ways to spend the year-end whether by volunteering at various welfare organizations or by holding a charity bazaar.
Others have gone to the other end of the scale, making their year-end parties more extravagant.
Renting rooms at hotels or serviced residences overnight for year-end dos is the preferred practice for some, while others hire professional caterers to provide food and drinks at parties held at home.
“I believe Christmas and year-end parties are supposed to be spent lavishly,” said Kim Ju-hye, a 34-year old artist who holds private parties with friends each year.
“I say more the merrier, more friends, more food and more extravagance. I think it’s a special day where more of anything can be excused.”
Others choose to spend December focusing on the future rather than celebrating the year that has passed, and for many that involves a trip to a fortune teller.
From taro cards and saju reading -- a traditional fortune-telling method that uses the year, month, day and time of one’s birth -- to shamans who claim to be possessed by gods, fortune-telling is varied.
“I suppose I don’t believe such things 100 percent, but it does feel good when I am told that good things are ahead,” Choi Young-hee, a 60-year old businessman, said.
“When the fortune is bad, I feel I am more psychologically prepared when bad things happen even if it is just coincidence that the fortune-teller was right.”
By Choi He-suk (firstname.lastname@example.org