Cheju Fire Festival: Watching a Korean celebration of New Year
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Cheju Fire Festival:  Watching a Korean celebration of New Year

The Fire Festival had all the hallmarks of a one-off event - terrible parking in a muddy field, traders selling fibre optic necklaces and wands, mobile food vendors, large bars set up in white marques and music played over a PA system.

Before I even entered the festival area I was cold and caked in mud, having queued up for twenty minutes to buy a Korean interpretation of the hotdog - boiled fish on a skewer. It had been a long drive through the hills of Cheju Island to find the site but the long queue of cars on the normally quiet roads has helped everyone find the right spot.

Cheju Island, the remnant of a long extinct volcano, is a popular holiday spot in Korea, its incredible mountains, beautiful beaches and unique culture and history make it popular with locals and international alike. People come from around the world for its national park, featuring waterfalls, cave systems, stunning cliffs, ocean views and Korea’s second highest mountain of Mt Halla.

Cheju, known as the Hawaii of Korea, due to its warm climate and constant sea temperature, is well above freezing, while most of the mainland was experiencing heavy snowstorms. Our visit was timed to coincide with the first full moon of the lunar New Year as Cheju was the perfect place to see the New Year Fire Festival.

Dating back hundreds of years, when farmers burnt their fields to rid their land of disease, drive away the past year's misfortunes, and to pray for good fortune and bumper crops in the next. The festival was banned in the middle of the seventies as part to Korea’s fire prevention policy, to be revived in 1997.

“There are fire festivals all over the country” explained our guide “but Cheju’s is the best. It’s the third day here and the end of the festival is always the best. That is when the fire comes”. Thousands of people have come from all over Cheju to visit this festival and many have flown over from the mainland to witness one of the most impressive displays in the country. Folk dancing, traditional crafts, song contests, drama performances and even traditional wedding ceremonies take place before the full moon, with the final night attracting the largest crowds. This festival was just about to finish, with crowds gathering on the side of Saebyeol Oreum- the areas largest hill, to witness the finale - a giant fire.

I walked between the marquees selling food, drinks and souvenirs into a vast open area, which looked over the valley. Fireworks explode in the air, set off from amongst the crowd, children screamed as bangers went off on the ground while others covered their ears and hid between the legs of their parents. Many people were playing with burning cans, suspended on a long wire.

“This is a folk game. Jwibul nori we call it here” explained a young man who was in the process of lighting each can and passing it to his friends. “We put a small fire in a tin can and swing it around on this wire.” From a distance it seems that large halos of fire surround individuals, only to disappear as their arms grow tired and they rest the can back on the ground. As soon as they stop, people crowd round the tins, rubbing their hands to keep warm. As more fireworks are set off from amongst the crowd, shouts and screams broke up the singing and dancing as people avoided a stray projectile. It whizzed through the crowd before exploding, without incident, next to one of the portable toilet blocks. ...


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