Jeju Jeongwol Dawboreum fire festival, Jeju, South Korea
One of Korea’s most unique festivals is a must see
Story by Joanna Burgess | Photo by Jim Saunders
An Oreum on fire | Credit: Jim Saunders
In the infamous words of Beavis— “fire, fire, fire!” This quote engulfs the primary theme of the Annual Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival. Beginning in 1997, this year marks the 13th year of the festival, with each year becoming bigger and brighter. While fire, fun, and festivities are the main attraction of the Fire Festival, it is important to understand why this festival came to be in the first place.
Up until about 30 years ago, farmers in the mid-mountain areas raised two to three cows to be utilized for plowing during the busy farming season. When the season was over, the cows grazed along the grounds of the local villages. The farmers needed to find a way to provide good quality grass for their cows and came up with the idea to set the fields ablaze, expunging potentially dangerous insects from the area and prepping it for their animals to graze during the late winter and early spring. In essence, setting the fields on fire aided the local farmers in being assured of a bountiful harvest season each year.
The annual Fire Festival is a modernized version of this traditional practice, bringing together local Jejuites and tourists from all over Asia to celebrate and pray for the fruition of an abundant harvest season during the upcoming year. The event takes place each year during the first full moon of the lunar calendar.
I have had the distinct pleasure of attending the Fire Festival for the last two years. I must say that this is quite a spectacular event. It is, by far, my favorite festival in Korea—an event not to be missed by anyone, especially if you love fire as much as I do.
On the main event night, after the sky becomes dark, lit only by the luminous beauty of the full moon, the drumming begins. At first, there is a very subtle undertone that fills the air. Moments later, the drums are in full thunderous percussive mode as the chanting begins. Dozens and dozens of traditionally dressed Koreans grasping medieval style torches fully doused in flames begin the slow walk up the side of Saebyeol Oreum. As the chanting and drumming continues, the entire side of the giant parasitic volcano lights up bigger than a child’s eyes on Christmas morning. Flames begin to creep up the side of the hill, as fireworks begin exploding simultaneously with the elusive percussion that still rings forth in the background of all the clamour of the crowd. Thus begins the elaborate celebration.
In addition to setting the Saebyeol Oreum on fire, there will be many more events taking place that range from hands-on to contests to performances. Each day has a specific theme. The first day of the festival is experiencing Jeju folk culture, the second is the grand unity of Jeju citizens, and the last, of course, is the setting of an oreum afire. During the three days, there will be a variety of folk markets set up filled with traditional foods and specially made local products. Among the contests to take place are jump rope, yut-nori (a traditional Korean game played with four wooden sticks and some colored buttons), and pony fighting. Children can participate in grass sledding and kite flying. Other events include tug-o-war, burning of small wooden towers, building stone pagodas, and archery.
The festival is free and is located at the Saebyeol Oreum off of Highway 1135, approximately 15km from the 1115/1136 split coming from Jeju’s Halla College.
The 2009 Fire Festival will be held from Friday 12th February until Saturday 14th February. The hill is set on fire on the Saturday.