Wishing Upon Year’s First Sunrise

Korean tradition draws nearly 1,000 to Montauk Point in predawn hours
Montauk Point has become a popular predawn New Year’s Day destination, with hundreds of Koreans and Korean-Americans there to greet the first sunrise of the new year. T.E. McMorrow photos

    One hundred twenty-two miles from Times Square, about 1,000 people — mainly Koreans — gathered before dawn at Montauk Point Tuesday morning for a very different kind of New Year’s celebration — the joyful greeting of the first sunrise of the year.

    In Korean tradition, the greeting of the New Year’s sun should be done from the easternmost point of accessible land. For New Yorkers, that would be Montauk Point. When asked, most of those in attendance said that they’d driven from the city, primarily from Manhattan or Queens.

    Cars arrived in the dark, some with two passengers, others with whole families. The average age was 20-something, with a smattering of newborns and elderly in the mix.

    “It’s cultural,” Seonho Lee explained, as the dark eastern sky slowly began to glow. It was windy and cold. Many elected to stay in their cars in the upper parking lot. Others walked along the rocks towards the Point, or else climbed the hill to the eastern side of the Lighthouse, where Mr. Lee and his group were standing, pressed against a chain-link fence, gazing east at the still-dark horizon in the cold wind.

    Mr. Lee, an exchange student at Stony Brook University, had rendezvoused with his sister, Minju Lee, and three friends near Penn Station at about 3 a.m., and had driven to Montauk Point, parking in the upper lot, which was full as daybreak loomed. The cars had been streaming in since before 5 a.m. The lower parking lot was at least half full, and two big tour buses sat there idling, as well.

    According to Korean legend, if you make a wish when the sun rises on the first day of the year, it will come true, Mr. Lee said.

    In Korean mythology, he said, objects that Western culture sees as inanimate, such as the sun, the sea, or even a rock, are endowed with a spirit.

    “I’ve done this many times in Korea,” he said of greeting the first sunrise of the New Year. “This is my first time doing it here.”
    Listening to those around him speaking in his native tongue, he smiled. “I feel like I’m in Korea,” he said.

    He told the story, with his sister’s help, of the tiger and the bear. The tiger and the bear both prayed to the ancient Korean god that they might become human. The god told them that if they remained in a cave for 100 days, their wish would be granted.
    “They had only garlic to eat,” Ms. Lee added.

    The tiger left the cave before the 100 days were up, but the bear remained behind and was transformed into a woman, woman, later marrying the god and giving birth to Dangun, who became a great emperor of ancient Korea.

    The horizon was turning red as the siblings told the story, and the sea was a calm gray-blue in the predawn light. Waves rolled in from either side of the Point, breaking gently in a straight line towards the horizon.

    A couple who had driven from Port Washington had brought their young child, Lio, to see his first New Year’s sunrise. The mother held the small boy, who was bundled in baby-blue knitted wool, so he could see the sky slowly light up.

    Many in the crowd held up cameras and cellphones, taking photos of the brightening sky and of each other taking photos of the brightening sky. Smiling and laughing, young men and women held their fingers in the “Y” shape, for peace, as others snapped their pictures.

    The sunrise itself was hidden behind a wall of clouds on Tuesday. Men and women made their silent New Year’s wishes, then turned and walked back down the hill toward their warm cars and the long journey home.