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What do Koreans do during Seollal (Lunar New Year’s Day)?

- A Peak at How Koreans Celebrate Seollal -

Seollal, Koreans’ favorite holiday is around the corner. Koreans usually celebrate two new year’s; one on January 1st according to the solar calendar, and another according to the lunar calendar, falling this year on February 18th. During Seollal, most people go back to their hometowns to perform ceremonial rites to pay their respect to their ancestors, so the day before and after Seollal are also designated holidays. This year however, Seollal falls on the weekend, so the holidays are shorter. So, how do Koreans spend their Seollal? Let’s take a peak at Korea’s Seollal holiday, where we can imagine it quite busy but happy.

→ Go to the 2007 Traditional Seollal Hands-on Events in Seoul
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Before Seollal
Purchase gifts at department stores and markets!
Most families become very busy about one week prior to Seollal. There is a lot of shopping to do to prepare for the ancestral rites, and also because Seollal brings the rare occasion of all family members together in one place at the same time. Therefore, Seollal is one of the best holiday seasons for department stores and markets. Most people shop for gifts to give to their parents and friends. Meat, fish, fruit, Korean traditional snack ‘Hangwa’, tteokguk (rice cake soup), and various types of wild vegetables are popular items because they are required as part of the ancestral rites. The foods prepared for this rite must have nice shapes and colors, and they must be fresh. Most families spend an average of 200,000won on food for Seollal.

Another important preparation for Seollal is reserving train tickets. Thousands of people travel at the same time mostly to their hometown provinces. Before and after Seollal, the highways are very congested at this time of the year. Therefore, trains are a preferred transportation method because it is on time and there is no traffic, and to secure a seat most people reserve their train tickets at least a month in advance. Of course, those who decide to personally drive know what they are getting themselves into ahead of time.
What usually takes two hours takes four to five hours from Seoul to Daejeon. And so Busan, which is about four hours away, requires eight hours on the road during Seollal. All radio stations broadcast special live traffic updates because of the massive migration of people. Due to serious traffic problems, parents who live in smaller provinces are choosing to come to their children’s home in Seoul to let their children avoid this traffic congestion chaos.

I want to know, what are some of the most popular Seollal gifts?
Seollal gifts depend on the economy and trend of that year. The continuously popular gifts are department store gift certificates and cash. Also, since new notes have been issued in January, it is expected that cash gifts made up of the new notes will be popular this year. Because most people like new money, you may have to hurry before the banks run out of new notes.

Many elders also like receiving Ginseng, honey, and other health products, or massage goods. Daily necessities gift sets are also popular gift items including products such as shampoo, soap, and toothpaste. Other popular gift sets include food gift sets of ham, tuna, Korea’s traditional snack ‘Hangwa’, dried fish or fruit baskets.
Seollal Day
Perform ancestral rites and play traditional Korean games with family members!
The day prior to Seollal, family members gather together to prepare the holiday food. The ancestral rites dishes must be prepared with care, which is made to taste good and look good. Seollal’s most important food is tteokguk, but 20 other dishes such as wild vegetables, Korean style pancakes, various types of fish, galbijjim (rib stew), japchae (noodles with meat and vegetables), and more are also specially prepared because of the ancestral rites. To cook all this food requires long hours of work, and this reality has brought about the expression ‘holiday syndrome’. Unlike the male members of the family, the women work all day long preparing holiday food. Having to do this every year, every holiday season, women have been showing symptoms such as headaches, backaches, and other physical pains when the holidays come around.

Lately, the opinion that a holiday should be a family-oriented holiday is gaining popularity. So some families divide food preparations with each family bringing their own dish to share. More shops are offering holiday-cooking services, where you can purchase ready-made food. If you order in advance, your holiday dishes can be delivered to your home on the day of Seollal or the day before the actual holiday. Prices range between \200,000 and \300,000. Naturally, young housewives prefer this service if they can afford it rather than cooking mostly throughout Seollal.

On the morning of Seollal, people get up early to wash and put on their ‘Seolbim (new clothes prepared for Seollal)’. Many people wear Hanboks. Then the families gather to perform ancestral rites, paying their respects and offering them food because according to Korean traditional beliefs their ancestors return to enjoy the holiday food prepared for them. An ancestral tablet is placed on the rites table along with all the dishes and drinks. This is to show appreciation and respect for late ancestors. The ancestral rites also symbolize the descendants’ prayers for a good new year.

After the rites have been performed, everyone shares the holiday food. Tteokguk is also prepared without exception, made of thinly sliced tteok (rice cakes) cooked in beef soup. According to tradition, eating the tteokguk on Seollal adds one year to your age. Therefore, the children ask each other ‘how many servings of tteokguk did you have?’ and they calculate their age according to the number of serving they had just for fun.

After finishing their meal, the younger generations pay their respects to the elders of the family by bowing to them. The elders offer well-wishing remarks such as ‘have a healthy year’ or ‘meet someone nice’ as they give the young people ‘New Year’s money’. Children especially like Seollal because they can receive money as a New Year’s gift. Lately, an increasing number of Christian families are choosing not to perform the ancestral rites due to their religious beliefs. Instead, their family members gather to share food and stories, and spend quality family time during Seollal.
Performing the ancestral rites Ancestral rites table Tteokguk

I want to know, what do you do for entertainment on Seollal Day?
After the ancestral rites ceremony, the members of the family play traditional games for entertainment. The most common game is yunnori. It is a fun and easy-to-learn game that requires some teamwork. Players sometimes make bets with extra cash from their ‘New Year’s money’ they received. Some families order pizza or chicken after the games.

‘Gostop,’ which uses flower cards and board games are also popular Seollal games. Though flower cards are more complicated to play than yutnori, it is nonetheless popular even with adults. Once you begin a game of flower cards, three four hours go by in a blink of an eye. Children like to play board games like Zenga.

If you want to play folk games such as jegichagi, neoltwiggi, tuho, or kite-flying, visit a nearby palace or park. The palaces and parks equip themselves with folk games for visitors to enjoy. Also, many families go to the movie theaters. Seollal is a busy season for the movie theaters.
After Seollal
Go from your husband’s parents home to your wife’s parents home!
After performing the traditional Seollal activities as one’s husband’s parents’ home, families go to the wife’s parents’ home afterwards. It has become a general practice to visit both in-laws during Seollal, and to pay their respects indiscriminately at both homes. This change is due to the decrease in boy-child preferences and patriarchy. More people have become aware of the fact that men and women should be equal, and since family sizes have grown smaller, some prefer girls as opposed to boys. In fact, recently the saying ‘it’s disappointing to have a son’ is often said jokingly.

I want to know, they say this year is the Year of the Golden Pig, is this true?
Because last year was considered an onset of spring, it was a lucky year known as the ‘double spring year’ and many couples got married. This year is considered the ‘Year of the Golden Pig’ which comes around every 600 years. Thus, many couples are trying to have babies this year. According to tradition, children born in the “Year or the Golden Pig’ live healthy and wealthy lives. Also, many shops sell golden pig items this year such as golden piggy banks, decorations, T-shirts, and cell phone accessories.
However, the ‘Golden Pig’ story is only a folklore myth. Soothsayers claim this year is neither the ‘Year of the Golden Pig’ nor the ‘Year of the Red Pig’. The ‘Year of the Golden Pig’ is only a superstitious story giving people an optimistic outlook on the future as well as using it as a marketing strategy.
Plus Tip I wish to travel Korea during Seollal Holidays!
It is very quiet in Seoul during the Seollal Holiday because most families leave Seoul to visit their relatives in their hometowns as well as many shops and restaurants close for the holidays. The city feels somewhat deserted at this time of the year.
Palaces, parks and theme parks are probably the busiest places during Seollal. They offer various traditional games and events to visitors as fun entertainment. But if you wish to visit the provincial areas, you may want to consider changing your schedule. Buses and trains are crowded and traffic is pretty serious. A quiet relaxing tour of Seoul is recommended if you are going to visit Korea during Seollal.

Contributor Park, Ji-Hyun


Date 01/28/2008



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