Seollal – Korean New Year

Image courtesy of the Korean Tourism Organization

It’s almost time for one of the most important holidays in Korea. Which holiday? Seollal (설날), the Korean New Year is also known as the Lunar New Year (or Chinese New Year) in English as it follows the lunar calendar not the solar one. This means that the actual date of Seollal varies from year to year but it’s generally in late January to mid-February. This year, Seollal falls on January 23rd. In Korea, not only is the actual day of Seollal a holiday (what we would call a statutory holiday in Canada) but the day before and after are also days off work in Korea.

Why?

Seollal, like Chuseok, is a family holiday. Almost every Korean travels to their hometown to spend the holiday with their family and participate in the honouring of elders and ancestral rites. This means that what might normally be a three hour drive will become a ten hour drive (or more). I remember a friend once told me that the normal 4-5 hour drive from Seoul to Busan turned into a 20 hour drive. I tended to stay home or fly somewhere on Seollal and Chuseok because the one time I traveled by car, it took us triple the normal time. No joke! But don’t worry, there’s more to Seollal than just the long drive 🙂

Food is an important part of Seollal. Women will spend days preparing all the food – both for the ancestral rites and to be eaten. The most important of which is tteokguk (떡국) – rice cake soup, a traditional Korean soup which has the yummy slices of rice cake (tteok, 떡) that I like so much in my dwenjangjiggae (된장찌개). Eating the tteokguk is incredibly symbolic for Koreans as when you finish your bowl, you become a year older. Koreans figure out their age differently than we do in Canada, they become a year older on Seollal, not their birthdays. Other food eaten at Seollal include fish, dried persimmons, and a variety of walnuts, dates, vegetables, and traditional cookies called hangwa (한과). Mmm… yummy tteokguk and hangwa!

Traditionally, Koreans would dress up in new hanbok (although not everyone does this anymore) and the children would honour their elders (parents, grandparents, etc.) by performing a “big” bow called sebae (세배) and wishing them a happy new year (새해 복 많이 받으세요). I’ve done sebae in hanbok and it’s a lot harder than it looks, especially standing back up! Their elders give gifts or most commonly, money afterwards. In fact, employers often give gifts to employees at Seollal (and Chuseok). I’ve been given wine gift sets, spam gift sets, and hangwa. I still use the pourer from one of my wine gift sets!

After all the seriousness of the bowing and honouring of elders is complete, there are lots of fun traditional games to play. I’ve tried a few of them and my favourite is tudo (투호) – arrow toss, mainly because I don’t suck at it but there are lots to choose from! Other games that are played during Seollal include jegichagi (제기차기) – Korean hacky sack, yeonnaligi (연날리기) – kite flying, and yutnori (윷놀이) – a traditional board game.

Tuho image courtesy of Wikipedia

Want to know more about Seollal? Check out this great video (below) or the article by the Korean Tourism Organization.

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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