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Soellal, Lunar New Year, Customs

Soellal, Lunar New Year, C...

Lunar New Year, known as Seollal (also spelled Seolnal) is one of Korea’s major holidays. Since Koreans also mark January 1st as a holiday, the country celebrates two New Year holidays, almost in a row, since Soellal falls in either February or mid to late January. The actual New Year’s Day is a statutory holiday as are the day before and the day after – this was to allow people to travel to their hometowns for the traditional rites honouring the family’s ancestors. Note that if the holiday falls on a Sunday, the Monday is added as a statutory holiday. Many of the time-honoured rituals are gradually disappearing or being modified in modern Korea. However, the majority of people still practice most, if not all, of them.

Before Seollal – Shopping.
Lunar New Year is usually one of the most profitable times for department stores and fresh markets. No one wants to come empty-handed to visit family and friends so they shop for gifts such as meat, fish, fruit as well as Korean traditional snacks, tteokguk (rice cake soup), and various types of wild vegetables that are a required part of the ancestral rites. Department store gift certificates and cash are also popular with most people. The older generation likes to receive ginseng, honey, and other health / massage products. Daily necessities gift sets such as shampoo, soap, and toothpaste and food gift sets of ham, tuna, Spam, Korea’s traditional snack ‘Hangwa’, dried fish or fruit baskets are commonly given as well.

It is customary also to wear new clothing on New Year’s Day, usually the traditional hanbok. (Note: the actual new year's day is the 2nd day of the 3-day holiday)

Travel Arrangements
Given that only a fraction of the population still lives in their ancestral villages and that the majority of Koreans are now in and around Seoul, the highways become one huge parking lot at the beginning and end of the Seollal period. At least a month or so prior to the holidays, train seats have all been booked as have domestic flights. Those who waited too long or who prefer going on their own can look forward to extremely long drives – a normally four hour drive can take up to four times longer. 

Things are changing, however. An increasing number of parents are choosing to come to their children’s homes in the city, since travel in the reverse direction is much easier. Also, with the increase in evangelical Christianity, some families are no longer practicing all of the traditional ancestor rites. Moreover, when the holiday covers more than the usual three days (near a weekend, etc) some people are opting to travel outside the country, often to warmer climates or to visit relatives living abroad. Whereas Seoul used to be almost traffic-free over Seollal, that is no longer the case and the majority of retail and service businesses remain open, sometimes even on New Year’s Day itself.

Traditional Foods
The day before Seollal, family members gather together to prepare the dishes required for the ancestral rites dishes, which must not only taste good but also to look perfect. Seollal’s most important dish is tteokguk (rice cake soup) 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 prepared for the ancestral rites. Preparing all this food has long been the duty of women, especially the elder son’s wife. A wife could be judged on the quality, appearance and amount of food she prepared.

Fortunately for some women, changes are happening here as well. Rather than have the elder son’s wife assume the entire burden, relatives are sharing the duties and bringing food with them…again prepared by the women of the family. Also, shops are offering ‘catering’ services of holiday foods that can be delivered on the day prior or on New Year’s Day for W200,000 and up. The men of the family are also being encouraged to participate in the process, as opposed to just eating, gaming and watching TV.

Seollal Day Rituals
Charye: On the morning of Seollal, people get up early and put on their ‘Seolbim (new clothes prepared for Seollal)’, often Hanboks still today. The family then gathers to perform the traditional rites, paying respect to their ancestors through food offerings and special rituals. After the rites have been performed, everyone partakes of the prepared foods.
The ritual includes a special bow to the ancestors. This bow, called sebae, involves getting down on both knees and bending toward the floor.
Those families that no longer perform the ancestral rites still get together to share food and enjoy the other traditional activities.

DDeokguk (aka Tteokguk): All Koreans eat ddeokguk, a soup made of thinly sliced ddeok (rice cakes) cooked in beef broth, on New Year’s Day. According to tradition, eating ddeokguk on Seollal adds one year to one’s age. So, if someone asks you how much ‘rice cake soup’ you had on Seollal, they are really asking your age. Because the slices of ddeok (rice cake) resemble coins, they symbolize wealth while the long rice cake role from which the slices are cut is symbolic of long life.

Children Bowing (jeol): After finishing their meal, the younger generations pay their respects to the elders of the family (grandparents, older family members, parents) by bowing (Keun Jeol) to them. The elders, in turn, offer their young relatives their best wishes for the year (for example. ‘have healthy year’ or ‘meet someone nice’) along with a gift of ‘New Year’s money’ (usually new bills placed in an envelope). 

Sebae is another bowing custom wherein younger family members perform a deep bow to their elders and wish them a happy new year.

Traditional Games:
The most common game is yut nori - a fun and easy-to-learn game that requires a certain degree of teamwork. Players sometimes make bets with extra cash from their ‘New Year’s money’ they received. Another popular game, especially for the men, is Gostop. Board games are also popular, with games like Zenga among the children’s favourites. Palaces, parks and theme villages offer the chance to participate in some of the old traditional outdoor games, such as jegichagi, neoltwiggi, tuho, or kite flying. Modern families often go to the movies making Seollal a very profitable season for movie theatres.

Visiting the Wife’s Parents Home
Because of the ancestral rites duties, families generally go to the home of the husband’s parents or elder brother for Seollal. In the past, they did not visit the wife’s family at all. However, in recent years, that has changed and it is now increasingly common to spend time with both sides of the family...although, many women still feel that the division time is still not very equal, things are changing. 

K4E Editor: Korea4Expats want to provide the most accurate and complete information possible, so if you notice an error or omission in the contents above, please contact us at info@korea4expats.com

Last Updated on 2020-01-21

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