Travel Highlights

Celebrating Seollal in Korea: Glimpse of local New Year’s customs

  • Tag Event Food History
  • Date01/20/2016
  • Hit195691

Photo: Tteok-guk (rice cake soup) is the first meal of the day Koreans have in celebration of a new beginning and in the hopes of longevity and good health.

Seollal (Lunar New Year; January 1 of the lunar calendar) is one of the most celebrated national holidays in Korea. While many observe Sinjeong (Solar New Year; January 1 of the Gregorian/Western calendar), most Koreans celebrate Seollal, which usually lasts for three days (the day of, the day before, and the day after). This year, Seollal falls on February 8 of the Gregorian 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 wear a hanbok (traditional clothes), performing ancestral rites, play folk games, eat traditional foods, listen to stories and talk well into the night. Read on to discover how Koreans celebrate Seollal.

The day before Seollal; Busy with preparations!

Photo: Charye preparation (left) / People waiting on a train station ready to visit their hometowns (right)

Seollal demands a lot of preparation, and this ritual or the process of the preparation is called ‘charye’ in Korean, especially in terms of gifts, traveling, and not to mention, the holiday feast! As there are many things to purchase for the ancestral rites and gifts, department stores and markets are usually very crowded during the days leading up to Seollal.

The foods for ancestral rites are prepared with a variety of wild herbs, meat, fish, and fruits all chosen with great attention paid to the quality of their shape, color, and freshness. The diversity and quantities of the preparation are huge, largely enough to feed and be shared with people who do not really celebrate the day as a cultural custom.

Another crucial part of preparing for Seollal, especially for those far from home, is travel arrangements. Many people live away from their family home because of work, marriage, or study, and therefore must travel to celebrate Seollal with their families. So, there is a mad rush to book buses, trains, or plane tickets before they all sell out. Meanwhile, traveling by car during the holiday can take over two to four times the normal travel time due to heavy traffic. For this reason, real-time reports of highway traffic conditions during Seollal are broadcast on the radio and other mass media channels.

  • Tip: What to give on Seollal? Recommended gifts items for the holiday!
  • Seollal gifts vary each year depending on economic situations and gift trends, but the most popular ones are department store gift cards and cash. Popular gifts for parents include ginseng, honey, health products, and massage chairs. Other common gifts include toiletries such as shampoo, soap, toothpaste, etc., and gift baskets/sets composed of spam, tuna, hangwa (traditional sweets and cookies), dried or fresh seafood, hanu (Korean beef), and fruit.

On the day of Seollal: Ancestral rites and reminiscing traditional games!

Photo: Charye ritual (left) / Sebaetdon (New Year's money) are given as a Seollal gift (right)

The morning of Seollal begins with an ancestral rite. Family members, each dressed up for the occasion (traditionally in hanbok, but often in Western formal attire nowadays), gather in front of the ritual table and set on it an ancestral tablet and dishes of ritual foods, which are according to the rules of ancestral rites. Once set, the rite begins with deep bows as greetings to the ancestor spirits, and proceeds with offerings and prayers before ending with bidding farewell to the spirits. The ritual is conducted to express respect and gratitude to one’s ancestors and to pray for the family’s well-being throughout the year. Although many prefers to celebrate the days excluding the charye ritual, it is still considered as a part of valuable traditions by Koreans.

Following the rite, everyone gathers together and eats the ritual food. The main dish of the day is tteok-guk, a traditional soup made with sliced rice cakes, beef, egg, vegetables, and other ingredients. In Korea, eating tteok-guk on New Year’s Day is believed to add a year to one’s age. People often ask each other, “How many servings of tteok-guk have you had?” as a fun way to ask each other’s age.

After the meal, the younger generations of the family pay respect to their elders by taking a deep bow called sebae, and by presenting them with gifts. Then, the elders offer their blessings and wishes for a prosperous year. Children often receive sebaetdon (New Year’s money) as a Seollal gift. For the rest of the day, family members play traditional folk games, eat food, and share stories.

Photo: Yutnori is a popular game to
play on Seollal

  • Traditional games to enjoy on Seollal
  • Seollal is an opportunity for the entire family to engage in fun activities together. The most common activity is yutnori, a board game that involves throwing four wooden sticks. This game is so easy to learn that all family members, regardless of age, can enjoy playing in teams and making fun bets.

    Besides yutnori, traditional games such as jegi-chagi (footbag-like game), neol-twiggi (see-saw), tuho (arrow toss), and yeon-naligi (kite flying) are widely played at places like parks or open areas at palaces and shrines. Lastly, families wind down by going to see a movie or watching Seollal specials on TV.

Related news 

  • Why is 2016 the Year of Red Monkey?
  • Every year is represented by one of the 12 zodiac signs, which take the form of twelve guardian animal deities collectively known as Sibijisin. These signs change with every new year thus, rotating over a 12 year cycle. For a fun activity at the beginning of each year, people, especially elders, analyze the relationship between their birth year zodiac sign and the new year’s sign to find out their fortune.

    The year 2016 is referred to as Byeongsinnyeon (‘Byeong-‘ means ‘red’ and ‘-sin’ means a monkey) or “The Year of Red Monkey.” The monkey is the ninth animal deity among the Sibijisin, which literally means "twelve (sibi) gods of the earth (jisin)."

  • Tip 1 – Travelling
  • During the Seollal holidays, the bustling city of Seoul becomes relatively quiet and peaceful, as most people leave the capital to return home or travel abroad. Streets become vacant, and many restaurants and shops close. However, recreational and cultural facilities such as amusement parks, national parks, and major palaces stay open to the public to present various events and traditional games for families. You might want to consider adjusting your travel dates if you are planning to visit other regions of Korea during the holiday period, as bus and train tickets are hard to come by and highways are heavily congested.
  • Tip 2 – Shopping
  • During the Seollal holiday season (Feb 7–10, 2016), most department stores and major shopping districts will stay closed for two days, especially on the day of Seollal (Feb 8, 2016) and either including the day before (Feb 7, 2016) or the day after (Feb 9, 2016).
    (*Closed days and operating hours may vary depending on location and brand, so please check details from the official website prior to visiting.)

Related news (TBA)

Recommended travel spots during the Seollal holiday

Namsangol Hanok Village Gyeongbokgung Palace N Seoul Tower
Samcheonggak Seoul Museum of History Lotte World Folk Museum
The National Museum of Korea Amsa-dong Prehistoric Settlement Site Changdeokgung Palace and Huwon
National Gugak Center
(Photo courtesy of National Gugak Center)
Deoksugung Palace Jongmyo Shrine
Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) Seoul Arts Center
(Photo courtesy of Seoul Arts Center)
National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul (MMCA Seoul)

* This column was last updated in January 2016, and therefore information may differ from what is presented here. We advise you to check details from the official websites before visiting.

<Last updated on January 13, 2016>