Seollal; Korea’s Lunar New Year celebration

March 20 , 2021 by: Kevin Horan

One of the biggest and most important holidays in Korea, and for Koreans abroad, too is certainly Lunar New Year. Or, as it is known in Korea, “Seollal/Seolnal” or in Hangul “설날/陰曆”. But what is Seollal, and why is it such a big holiday? But let’s start with the name, which one is correct?

Seollal, Seolnal, Lunar New Year, or Korean New Year?

With so many names, this holiday must be big, to start, some ex-pats may be a bit confused, is is “seollal” or “seolnal”? Well, it is both but also neither, this is because it is hard to match the Hangul alphabet’s pronunciation perfectly with the English alphabet.

Usually “seollal” is a bit closer to how it is pronounced while “seolnal” is a bit closer to how the Hangul letters that spell this word generally sound. If that is all a bit too confusing, then Lunar or Korean New Year are both fine!

And yes, Korea does celebrate the Gregorian New Year on January first. Seollal on the other hand falls on the 1st day of the 1st month of the Lunar calendar. In 2021, Seollal will fall on a Friday. Friday, February 12th to be exact. And Seollal is celebrated for 3 days, all of which are public holidays! The reason for the two extra days is partly because of all the travel that traditionally takes place during Seollal. People will travel to their hometowns and back within three days, and so the government grants three consecutive days off!

What is Seollal?

Aside from celebrating the New Year according to the Lunar calendar, Seollal is also a time to visit living family and relatives and to pay respect to deceased ancestors. Korea’s traditional culture is deeply tied with Confucianism, which places a heavy and sacred emphasis on respecting one’s elders and venerating one’s ancestors.

This is part of the reason the Korean government gives some extra days off for Seollal, because people ideally travel to and from their hometowns during this holiday. The significance is because this allows people to return to see their parents and to visit family graves. Some families may visit the family tombs and graveyards to cut the grass and leave mementos during Seollal, too.

Some of the first evidence of a lunar new year celebration in Korea go back to the 3rd century and attested to in early Chinese historical records. Over the centuries, Koreans gave this celebration their own indelible cultural imprint and celebrate it in their own distinct way. And by Korea’s Joseon era, which began in 1392, the celebration of the lunar calendar’s new year had become a major holiday across the land up into the modern era!

Though distinctly Korean, this holiday does share many similarities with other East Asian lunar new year celebrations like Chinese New Year, and Vietnamese Tet, among others. Some similarities include wearing folk clothing, eating rice cake, and certainly the use of the Chinese zodiac to keep track of the year in question.

The Chinese zodiac includes 12 animals; rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. There are also 5 elements, too; water, fire, metal, wood, and earth. Each year the animal and the element they are assigned rotates and changes. And the combination bears a different significance and level of luck, prosperity, bad fortune, or auspiciousness for each individual and their own zodiac birth charts. The year 2021 will be the year of the White (the element being metal) ox. Astrologers say this combination suggests hard work, diligence, and prosperity will be marks of the new year! At least we all hope so.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels

Seollal food, games, and traditions

When the family gathers for Seollal, they may participate in a Confucian ritual called charye/차례 or jesa/제사. This ritual involves displaying certain foods, prepared and displayed in a set Confucian fashion on a table with an ancestral tablet with the names of passed family members written in Classical Chinese. The family members will then perform bows in front of the table known as a charyesang/ 차례상. The table may be displayed in front of a large folding screen with Classical Chinese, known in Korean as Hanja/한자.

This ritual may be performed while wearing white Neo-Confucian ritual robes and caps. Colorful traditional Korean folk clothing, known as hanbok/한복 may also be worn during the ritual and the holiday in general. More commonly, regular clothing is worn by most people, but this trend is starting to change with more young people embracing hanbok again.

Though Seollal is a mostly universal holiday celebrated by practically all Koreans, some Protestant Christians, especially Evangelical Christians may not participate in jesa and other rituals that involve ancestor worship for religious reasons. Many Korean Catholic Christians will, however. Though they may not participate in the Confucian ancestor worship aspects of the holiday, Protestant Christians in Korea will still enjoy the holiday and gather with family regardless.

A tradition of bowing before living relatives is practiced too. This is called sebae/세배 and is usually performed by younger children before grandparents in exchange for pocket money. Though, depending on one’s grandparents, and how well the children bow and show respect, they may make off with hundreds of dollars in cash, if not more!

As the charyesang is loaded with food, a big feast is also enjoyed by the family. People will enjoy lots of different Korean foods or hansik/한식식. As a beverage, adults will enjoy Korean rice liquor known as soju. Each region has different food that they will display on their charyesang, and will generally enjoy the food that was displayed for ancestors after. These foods can be diverse but one common dish that is almost universal is rice cake soup or tteokguk/떡국. This rice cake soup is enjoyed on birthdays, but also on new year to signify everyone growing one year older! The name of this dish can be Romanized as “tteok” or “ddeok”. This is because the Korean letters “ㄸ” can sound like a double “t” or “d” depending on the pronunciation. Both are acceptable, but “tteok” has become the most common Romanization for this food!

Bottle of Soju, by Jovan Curayag on Pexels

Exchanging gifts is also a part of Seollnal. Bosses, family members, and close friends may all exchange beautifully wrapped gift boxes. Some of these may be mass produced and packaged in pretty boxes with a gift bag or wrapped up in a shiny cloth. These gift boxes can include toiletries, canned tuna or SPAM with cooking oil, or some fancy liquor with glasses included!

Some may be wondering why canned foods like tuna or SPAM are given as gifts. Some folks may also be wondering what on earth SPAM even is! The reason canned goods are given as gifts goes back to the Korean War. Food was in scarce supply, but American and NATO army bases had canned goods as rations that were acquired by the Korean people. The goods were difficult to get at the time and found a place in Korean cuisine even years after the war, where canned goods like tuna and SPAM are common and affordable. Now as for SPAM? It is a type of processed meat made mostly of pork. Think of hot dogs but in the shape of a rectangle! Trust us, it’s much tastier than it sounds, especially fried right alongside kimchi and rice, or boiled in budae jjigae or “army camp stew”!

Some traditional games people play on Seollnal include yut nori/윷놀이. This game is played with four specially marked sticks that act similar to dice and a board. Though the rules can be unique depending on each household, the general idea is to get four “horse” sticks around the gaming board. The board itself is shaped like an “X” surrounded by a square and players can move a few different and strategic ways.

Another traditional game is Go-Stop. Go-Stop uses a Hwatu card deck. “Hwatu” means “battle of the flowers” because the cards usually feature colorful flower and bird pictures. Go-Stop is also played on other holidays and is popular among the older generations in particular.

Jegijagi/제기차기 is a game where players kick an object that resembles a shuttlecock similar to hacky-sack. The object may be wrapped with paper or streamers and is kicked between two or more players. The winner is whoever gets the most consecutive kicks.

        Yeonnalligi/연날리기 is another popular tradition, which includes flying colorful kites. The flying of the kites signifies warding away bad luck for the year.

Another well-known game played during Seollal is neolttwigi/널뛰기. This traditional game is similar to a see-saw but includes players standing on each end of a plank and jumping to launch the other player up in the air.

Many of these games are also played on other major Korean holidays like Chuseok, too. And in addition to these more traditional games, families may incorporate modern traditions like watching movies or television shows together as one big family.

Though not a game per se, many people will either stay up all night or wake up very early to catch the first rays of sunlight from Korea’s easternmost coasts. For the folks who stay up all night, this often involves a lot of drinking and good cheer to make it through the cold night and up into the early morning hours! By staying up all night or waking up early to catch the first rays of the sun, people can greet the first day of the new year and usher in its good fortune for the rest of the incoming year, too.

Jongno-gu, Seoul, by Timothy Ries on Unsplash

Seollal greeting

Speaking of good fortune, it is customary to wish people a happy Seollal. Of course, this greeting is a bit different than the way we say, “Happy New Year” for the western new year. Instead, Koreans say, “have lots of luck in the new year!/새해 복 많이 받으세요!” So feel free to try saying this phrase to friends in the new year, too.

Seollal; Korea’s Lunar New Year

Celebrating Seollal is a great way to bring light and warmth to Korea’s cold winter season. Hopefully, the year of the White Ox will bring you lots of luck, prosperity, health, good fortune, and wealth!




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