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Seollal: Lunar New Year Celebrations in Korea

Seollal: Lunar New Year Celebrations in Korea

Seollal (Lunar New Year; January 1 of the lunar calendar) is one of the most celebrated national holidays in Korea. This year, Seollal falls on January 31 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 distant family members who travel home to get together for this special occasion. During Seollal, Koreans traditionally wear hanbok (traditional clothes), perform ancestral rites, play folk games, eat traditional foods, listen to stories, and catch up with one another. Read on to discover how Koreans celebrate Seollal.

Busy with Preparations before Seollal

Seollal demands a lot of preparation, especially in terms of gifts, traveling, and food. As there are many things to purchase for the ancestral rites and gifts, it is usually very crowded in department stores and markets 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 shape, color, and freshness.

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 their job, marriage, or for studying and travel great distances to celebrate Seollal with their families. So, they all try to book a bus, train, or plane tickets at the same time, which makes ticket reservations very difficult. Meanwhile, traveling by car during the holiday season can take more than two to four times the standard travel time due to heavy traffic on the roads. For this reason, real-time reports of highway traffic conditions during Seollal can be heard on the radio.

As most people are trying to leave big cities to visit their families in their hometown, a recent trend has developed where more parents are visiting their children living in the larger cities as it is more convenient and less crowded. Either way, the journey home during Seollal can be just as exciting as it is stressful.

Tip - some popular Seollal gifts
Seollal gifts vary each year depending on economic situations and gift trends, but the most popular gifts are department store gift cards and cash. Popular gifts for parents are 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 fish or fruits.

How do Koreans prepare food for the ancestral rites?
Food during Seollal is taken very seriously. Families spend the entire day before Seollal preparing food to be used as offerings to their ancestors as well as to be served to the family. Many Koreans believe that the taste and appearance of ritual foods determines their ancestors' level of satisfaction and therefore prepare them with great care. Around 20 different types of food are conventionally placed on the ritual table, though the number of dishes varies by region.

While food preparation was traditionally the job for the women in the family, more families today divide up the responsibilities among their members equally or simply hire holiday catering services, which can cost somewhere between 200,000-300,000 won. This recent trend is especially preferred by young housewives since it alleviates the burden of having to prepare all the ritual food on their own.

Ancestral Rites and Traditional Games on Seollal Day

The morning of Seollal begins with an ancestral rite. Family members, each dressed up for the occasion (traditionally in hanbok, but oftentimes being dressed up is enough), gather in front of the ritual table, and set it with an ancestral tablet and dishes of ritual foods according to the laws 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.

Following the rite, everyone eats the ritual food. The main dish of Seollal is tteokguk, a traditional soup made with sliced rice cakes, beef, egg, vegetables or other ingredients. In Korea, eating tteokguk on the New Year's Day is believed to add a year to one's age. People often ask each other, "How many servings of tteokguk 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 remainder of the day, family members play traditional folk games, eat more, and share stories.

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

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Family Trips as Seollal Alternatives!

A more recent alternative to practicing traditional Seollal customs is going on family trips during the holiday season. Some of the most popular Seollal destinations are spa and ski resorts. Additionally, tourist sites like folk villages, royal palaces and amusement parks hold special events and performances for families visiting on Seollal.

Why is 2014 the Year of the Horse?
Every year is represented by one of the 12 zodiac signs, which take the form of animals known as Sibijisin. These signs change with every new year and rotate 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 2014 is referred to as "Gaponyeon" or "The Year of the Horse." The horse is the seventh in the group of twelve guardian animal deities collectively known as the Sibijisin, which literally means "twelve (sibi) gods of the earth (jisin)." People born in the year of the horse are said to be open-minded and have a cheerful disposition with a good sense of humor. They are likely to achieve success in any activities they undertake. However, they can be somewhat self-centered and must beware of trifling away money on pleasures.

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During the Seollal holiday season, 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 Seollal as bus and train tickets are hard to get and highways are heavily congested.

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Last updated on December 20, 2013

Date 01/23/2014

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