When is Korean New Year?
Koreans celebrate New Year's Day at the start of the year on the lunar calendar (Solnal) and have done so for thousands of years. However, many Koreans now also celebrate the New Year at the start of the solar calendar (January 1), as Westerners do. Thus, many people in Korea and abroad celebrate New Year's Day twice. But it is the Lunar New Year that is one of the most important Korean holidays (including Christmas) on the calendar.
More than just a holiday to mark the beginning of a new year, Seollal is truly a special occasion for Korean people. Not only is it a time for paying respect to ancestors, but it is also an opportunity to catch up with family members. During Seollal, Koreans usually perform ancestral rites, play folk games, eat traditional foods, listen to stories and talk well into the night.
Korean New Year: Traditions and Customs
Korean New Year's celebrations begin with everyone wearing colourful traditional costume, the Hanbok. Traditional women's hanbok consists of a blouse shirt or a jacket and chima, a wrap-around skirt, which is usually worn full. Men's hanbok consists of a shirt and baji which means pants in Korea.
Since the Korean focus is on starting the New Year by reconnecting with family and ancestors, the most ceremonial ritual on New Year's Day is sehbae. Sehbae is the act of kneeling on the ground and bowing deeply so that your hands are also on the ground. Younger people most bow deeply to their elders and wish them a happy new year. Traditionally, families would begin by performing seh bae to deceased ancestors and making food and drink offerings to the spirits of ancestors (charae). Food is set out on a table as a gift for one’s ancestors, behind which are the family’s ancestral tablets. People perform deep bows to these tablets in order to show respect to their ancestors.
Depending on the family, the seh bae time may just instead start with grown-ups and children bowing and paying respect to their elders, beginning with deep bows to the oldest living generation. Children receive gifts of money and words of wisdom for the New Year, and everyone wishes each other blessings for the New Year.
Korean Traditional Foods for New Year Festivities
After seh bae, the traditional New Year's meal is Tteokguk, a soup of thinly sliced rice cakes, or a variation with dumplings such as the recipe for Korean dumpling (mandoo). Because everyone turns a year older with the start of each New Year (and not on their birthday), many people tell their children that they can't get older unless they've eaten some Tteokguk. Some type of tteok (rice cakes, ttuk, or duk) is enjoyed at every important Korean celebration, and the white rice cakes in the soup represent a clean start and new beginning for the New Year.
Another common food that is eaten during the Lunar New Year is Jeon. Jeon is a pancake-like dish which often contains green (spring) onions or pa. The two most common types of jeon are kimchijeon and haemul pajeon, which contain kimchi and seafood respectively. Sometimes jeon is also called buchimgae.
Following the breakfast or lunchtime meal of Tteokguk, it's time for more casual family time. If family members are not all gathering in one place, then it also customary for the younger generations to visit older uncles, aunts, and relatives that live close enough and give wishes for the New Year.
Korean Lunar New Year Traditional Games
Just like how Western families often play board games at Christmas, Korean families often play traditional games together during Seollal. One of the most popular games is 윷놀이, pronounced yut-nori or yunnori. This game is played between two teams and requires four special sticks. These sticks are curved on one side and flat on the other. Teams take it in turns to throw the four sticks in the air. The way that the sticks land determines how far the players move around the board. As well as yut-nori, other traditional games are often played over Lunar New Year like kite-flying or noltigi.
New Year's Eve
Celebrations on New Year's Eve in Korea would be similar to the western traditions such as parties and fireworks. A recent tradition is the ringing of the historic Boshingak Bell. The bell was originally constructed in 1396 and is now only rung on Lunar New Year.