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 celebrate Seollal, which usually lasts for three days (the day of, the day before, and the day after). This year, Seollal falls on February 10 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 some of the highlights of Seollal.
Before Seollal > Gifts, Travel Arrangements & Food!
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 main dish for Seollal is tteokguk (rice cake soup), with other representative dishes being galbijjim (braised short ribs), japchae (glass noodles with sautéed vegetables), pancakes, hangwa (traditional sweets and cookies), as well as a dozen other side dishes made with various kinds of fresh vegetables, meat and fish.
Another crucial part of preparing for Seollal, especially for those far from home, is travel arrangements. Many choose to travel by train, and reserve tickets well in advance in order to avoid heavy traffic on the roads that can often double standard travel time. Since many people who are away from their homes want to visit their families at the same time, reserving tickets during Seollal is not easy, resulting in many people traveling by car or bus. As most people are trying to leave big cities to visit their family, 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.
What are some popular Seollal gifts?
The most popular Seollal 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, dried fish or fruits.
How do people 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 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 thus prepare them with great care.
While food preparation has traditionally been the job of the women in the family, more families today divide up the responsibilities among their members equally or simply hire holiday catering services.
Seollal Day> Ancestral Rites and Traditional Games!
The morning of Seollal begins with an ancestral rite. Family members, each dressed in a brand new hanbok (traditional clothes), 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.
Following the rite, everyone eats the ritual foods. Tteokguk (rice cake soup) is the main food of Seollal, and eating it 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, and by presenting them with gifts. The elders, then, 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.
Some Christian families do not perform an ancestral rite. However, they still gather together to share Seollal holiday dishes and stories.
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What do people do for fun on Seollal?
Seollal is an opportunity for the entire family to engage in fun activities together. The most common activities are yutnori, a board game that involves throwing four wooden sticks and go-stop, a card game that uses hwatu (flower cards) to score as many points as possible in order to win. Such traditional games as jegichagi (footbag-like game), neoltwiggi (see-saw), tuho (arrow toss), and yeonnaligi (kite flying) are also widely played at public and recreational parks. Finally, families wind down by going to a theater or watching Seollal Specials on TV.
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Seollal Alternatives> Family Trips!
An 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 also hold special events for families on Seollal.
Why is 2013 the "Year of the Snake"?
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 2013 is referred to as 'Gyesanyeon or 'The Year of the Snake.' The Snake is the sixth in the group of twelve animal guardian deities collectively known as the Sibijisin, which literally means "Twelve (sibi) gods of the earth (jisin)." People born in the year of the snake are ambitious and hardworking. They are perfectionists. However, their overly perfectionist personality often results in self-doubt.
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Extra Tip> Fun Family Events!
The Seollal holiday season brings peace and quiet in otherwise bustling cities, as most people leave them to return home or travel abroad. Streets become vacant, and 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 for families. Once again, traveling to any of these facilities requires planning and arrangements well in advance.
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