While we in the west celebrate New Years on the 1st of January each year every year, with the Solar calendar always staying the same. In Korea however, more people observe New Year’s on a different day; on Seollal. Seollal is the start of the Lunar Year which goes back a week or so each year, but to Koreans, it is much more than that, it’s a time to pay respect to ancestors, to spend time with family, and to observe longstanding traditions.
Day 1 is generally the day for preparations, which normally takes the whole day simply due to the sheer amount of work that needs to be done, like the gifts, the travel arrangements and most importantly the food. Food is a huge part of the Korean New Year, as often the entire immediate and extended family are all under one roof, and there are a multitude of ancestral rites that involve food. This results in people putting great emphasis on not only the quality of the food but also the aesthetics, as only the best will do for their ancestors.
The main day of Celebration finally comes around and starts with the ancestral rite Charye, which involves the family gathering around the ritual table with food and tea. The rite then proceeds with deep bowing, offerings and prayers. This ritual is to express gratitude and respect towards our ancestors, and also to pray for the prosperity and well-being of the family through the coming year. The next ritual on the schedule is sebae, which is when people bow deep to their elders and wish them blessings for the new year. The elders in return give gifts and words of advice in a ritual manner called sebaedon (세뱃돈) which is done in hopes of wealth and prosperity in the coming year. Once this ritual is performed, the family then feasts and shares food in accordance with eumbok (음복) which is done in the hopes that the traditions of the ancestors live on in us . Each different region has a different main dish; in Rice growing areas, the main dish is tteok-guk (떡국), whereas in non rice growing areas, the main dish is mandu-guk (만두국). As well as feasting and performing rituals, Koreans also enjoy a variety of traditional games.These include Yutnori (윷 놀이), Jegichagi (제기차기) and Neolttwigi (널 뛰기) on Seollal.
The last day of Seollal is a lot less hectic than the days preceding it, with relaxation and quality time with family taking over as the main activity for the day. One of the more relaxing things that some Koreans do on the last day is to tie a ribbon to represent good luck for the coming year., while others make a ‘moon house’ out of firewood and burn it to ward off bad spirits and make various wishes for the coming year.
An interesting tidbit about Seollal is that, it also ushers in a new phase of the Zodiac. Korean people believe in a very similar Zodiac to the Chinese, and they’re both based upon the same confucian story. The story says that, one day God had asked all the animals to visit him on the first day of the new year, and the first twelve to visit him will be rewarded by being championed as the guardians of the year, and so it was; all the animals came to visit but the first twelve were proclaimed the guardians of the years.
Seollal is one of the most celebrated holidays all across Korea, with huge significance in Korean culture, and although like the zodiac the influence of tradition is waning, Seollal and the traditions around it don’t look to be going anywhere soon.
Want to celebrate the Korean New Year? Why not start with the traditional dish eaten on this special day? Check out our recipe on how to make dumpling soup – Mandu-guk!