Bell from Joseon Dynasty rings in the new year

by Cpl. Byun, Hye Joon
USAG Yongsan

YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea -- New Year's Eve is a special time for people all around the world and each country has its own unique way of celebrating the occasion. Korea's tradition of marking the first day of the new year revolves around a bell pavilion located in central Seoul: the Bosingak Belfry.

The belfry, established during the Joseon Dynasty, holds a bronze bell that would ring twice a day to mark the opening and closing of Seoul's four gates. The belfry has deep historical ties with the city itself, as the street in which it can be found (Jong-ro, literally meaning "Bell Street") derives its name from the pavilion. Though the pavilion has incurred damage during times of civil unrest, it is now fully restored and has been established as a landmark in the heart of the city.

Today, the bell holds a more symbolic meaning than simply being used as a practical means to tell time. Just as thousands of people gather to see the ball drop in New York City at midnight, teeming crowds now congregate in front of the Bosingak Belfry to hear the 33 tolls of the bronze bell to welcome the new year. The bell is rung 33 times in reference to the hope of reaching the 33rd dimension of Mount Meru, which is considered the center of the universe in some Buddhist cultures, and thus holds the meaning of wishing peace and prosperity unto all who hear the sound of the bell.

With the underlying message of new beginnings, the pavilion has gone beyond the scope of a historical site and has created a special culture in the context of the coming new year. The amount of people that gather in front of the belfry every year has been steadily rising and now more than 100,000 people join together with their families and loved ones for the count down.

For a lot of people in Seoul, and even those in different regions of the peninsula, the practice of gathering in front of the belfry has now become an annual ritual that is shared on New Year's Eve. Because of the sheer number of people that show up, the event is directed by the city government and many distinguished figures show up at the pavilion to mark the celebration.

With its deep historical roots in place, the Bosingak Belfry has become the cultural hot spot for many people in Korea looking for a suitable way to forget the old and ring in the new.

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