Korean New Year

Korean New Year is a special occasion for families. Korean people honour their elders, visit their family, eat customary food, participate in ancestral rites and play folk games. The preparations for Seollal (설날)  begin far in advance. The initial origins of Seollal (설날)  are uncertain, but legend has it that it dates back to 2333 B.C., the date of the start of the earliest Korean kingdom. The lunar calendar was first used in Korea during the Three Kingdoms Period. 

When is Korean New Year?

Korean New Years is also known as Seollal (설날) and Lunar New Year. It usually occurs on the day of the second new moon after winter solstice. The celebrations occur across three days; the day before the first day of the lunar calendar, the first day of the lunar calendar and the day after this. Lunar new year often occurs on the same day as Chinese New Year. It can be on any day between January 20th and February 21st. In 2020, it will occur on the 25th of January. It is also celebrated on the same day in North Korea. Many other countries celebrate the same holiday, including China, Vietnam, Mongolia and Tibet. Some Koreans also celebrate Sinjeong or Solar New Year on January 1st. On this day, many people travel to the East coast of Korea and watch the sunrise. 

Conservative family rituals:

Seollal (설날) is a time for family reunions, as it may be one of the only times in the year people can see their family if they live far away. There are huge crowds when travelling, often with high levels of traffic and booked out trains and buses. It is considered by some to be the most important of Korean traditional holidays, a time where it was traditional for the family to gather at the oldest male relative’s house to honour their elders and ancestors. This tradition is generally still followed by Koreans, as they maintain a paternalistic culture. In the past, Confucianism dictated that a married woman could not visit her parents unless she had the assent of her parents-in-law, however, this is not followed in Korea today. It is traditional to wear hanbok clothing during Seollal (설날) celebrations, which is also worn during other celebrations.

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The families perform ancestral rites known as charye (차례). This rite begins with the preparation of different foods, including herbs, meat, fish, fruit, alcohol and tteokguk. Tteokguk is a Korean New Year soup made of rice cake. The female family members prepare the food and the males present them to the ancestors. The ancestral rites are very difficult and time consuming, and as a result, along with differences in religious beliefs, many families in modern Korea do not do them. There are also differences in how the ancestral rites should be performed among differing families and provinces — among them, the belief that peaches and red beans ought not be used as they are believed to repel spirits. The food, once chosen, is placed in a certain order on the table and the family pays their respects to their ancestors before eating the food. 

After eating, the children perform deep traditional bows to the elders, which is known as saebae (세배). The grandparent/s sit in a position of honour, which is the warmest place on the floor. The older relatives bless the children and give them gifts of money. When the children grow up and are adults, they in turn give money to their grandparents. After visiting the paternal side of the family, the maternal relatives are visited. At the maternal relatives house charye (차례) is not performed. The family repeats the ancestral rite of saebae (세배) and eats another traditional meal. The performance of these rituals means the family will have a year filled with good fortune. 

The Zodiac Signs: 

2019 was the year of the golden pig. 2020 is the year of the rat. The Korean zodiac is made up of twelve animal gods  (十二支神). These animals are: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. According to legend, the animal zodiacs originated from a gathering in which Buddha invited animals from all over the world to see him and only 12 animals showed up. He named each year in the order that they came to visit him. Every twelve years the cycle begins again. The animals have also been used to name the hours of the day and to show direction. For time, each two hour cycle is represented by a zodiac animal. Each animal can be used to represent 30 degrees of direction. The year that a person is born in determines their zodiac sign and is believed to give a person certain traits, such as being hard-working or dependable. It is common for Koreans to receive advice from fortune tellers based on their zodiac character. 

Traditional Games:

Many traditional games are played on Seollal (설날), and these are just a few:

  • Yutnori (윷놀이). There is a board and four wooden sticks. The four wooden sticks are thrown and the counters are moved around the board based on how many sticks are facing upwards. It is played in teams and each team will have four counters. The first team to complete their way around the board with all their counters wins.
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  • Neolttwigi (널뛰기) is a game where two people stand on one end of a see saw and take turns jumping on it. 
  • Jegichagi (제기차기) is similar to hacky sack—an item is kicked and the players try not to let it touch the ground. 
  • There is a tradition where kites are flown for the first 15 days of the lunar month and this is a popular game to play on Seollal, known as Yeonnalligi (연날리기). 

Rising tensions during Seollal:

In 2012, a Korean drama was released called ‘My Husband Got A Family.’ This drama is about the stress and panic that daughters-in-law feel about preparing for the Seollal (설날) celebrations, particularly charye (차례). Many wives feel a sense of apprehension during this time as they have to go to the mother-in-law’s house to prepare food. The male family members rarely help during the preparations. Even if the ritual of charye (차례) is not done in certain families, there can still be high levels of stress as they commonly still need to help prepare huge meals.

In the more conservative areas, this tradition is hotly debated among some women.  For example, in Daegu, as soon as the daughter-in-law arrives at the house, she typically begins making Korean pancakes and other holiday meals. She then helps with any additional side meals and helps with chores. It’s a tiring part of the day for the women of the house. This is often a popular point of contention and is often talked about among friends (beyond the house of course!) The stress during the festive seasons can be so great for some that a term has been coined for divorces that occur in February and March after Seollal (설날): they are referred to as  “myeongjeol divorces”. 

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Featured image source: © 2019/10/29, Baakyung Kate Lee,

Jennifer Marlton

I lived in Korea for the past two years while working as an English teacher. I have always loved writing and I enjoy exploring new cities. In Korea, my hobbies included swing dancing, KPOP dancing and singing in a Korean choir.



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