How to celebrate Seollal, Korean Lunar New Year
On the Lunar New Year, or Seollal, Koreans celebrate one of the country’s most important holidays. The Lunar New Year celebration in South Korea focuses on respect for one’s elders and ancestors, as well as time with family and loved ones.
During Seollal, Koreans usually wear hanbok, perform ancestral rites, play folk games, eat traditional foods, listen to stories and talk well into the night. Read on to discover how Koreans celebrate Seollal.
Traditional Korean food over New Years
Almost any large family gathering in any culture will generally revolve largely around food and Korea is no exception. A range of dishes are prepared traditionally in Korean homes around Lunar New Year that boils from main dishes to sweets and drinks. While some of the main dishes prepared can vary by family and the region they are from, one dish that is ubiquitous across all Korean families is tteokguk (or rice cake soup). This hot soup dish is made with a protein-based broth (most commonly beef) in which seasonings and sliced plain, oval-shaped rice cakes are cooked and then topped with chopped scallions, cooked meat, toasted laver, cooked egg. Eating tteokguk is not only thought to usher in good luck for the new year but on a significant level it reflects gaining a year older under Korean age when everyone turns a year older on New Year’s Day. The whiteness of the rice and soup is also said to reflect a pure body, mind, and heart as one enters the New Year. Though all families will eat tteokguk, there are different variations of the dish including an oyster broth-based tteokguk in certain coastal regions and different shaped rice cakes such as the mini snowman-like joraengi tteok used typically in tteokguk of the Gaesong region. Other families also add homemade mandu (dumplings) to make it into hearthier dishes like manduguk or tteokmanduguk.
In addition to travel and food costs, another reason that makes Seol typically an expensive holiday is that the giving and receiving of gifts is also customary. While in the past typical gifts included rice, meat, fruit, clothing, shoes, etc, these days gift “sets” are sold at department stores, shopping malls, supermarkets and more ranging from expensive fruit baskets to packaged sets that include a potpourri of food items such as cooking oils, premium nuts, dried seafood, and even cans of Spam. These gift-giving also extends beyond homes to typically workplaces as well when one’s company usually bestows each employee a gift as well which can range from company bonuses to toiletry sets (shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, soap, etc).
When is Seollal?
Seollal is on January 25, 2020. While Seollal is actually just a day, most native Koreans brave hours on the road to visit their parents and their hometown so the government designates approximately 3 days as public holidays. If the last day of the holidays is a Friday or the beginning of the holidays is Monday, you can consider the connecting weekend as a part of the holidays and plan your trip accordingly. Celebrating Seollal in Korea means a trip to see family. Because Koreans leave for their hometown to visit family before the Lunar New Year, traffic often becomes a real problem for travelers. Most people will plan their visits strategically as the trip home may take hours and you may find yourself stuck in traffic.
Paying respects to ancestors and family feasts
The day before New Year is a furor in a typical Korean home. Families will have gathered together and the house is cleaned thoroughly, and the table and ware for the jesa (ceremony to pay respect to the family’s ancestors) are prepared for the ancestors of a family to pay respect to them. The kitchen is particularly busy as a big feast is prepared for the jesa table the next day. However, even the jesa table is quite complicated including rules on what food goes where, direction of the table, etc. Most of the dishes do not deviate too differently although there are some regional differences depending on your home region. When all is laid out on the jesa table on New Year day, the whole family will gather to do the jesa ceremony by bowing to the ancestors, offering incense and drinks, and praying for good health, luck, and prosperity for the family in the year ahead. Afterwards, families usually have a big feast of the food preparations.
Playing traditional games
Seollal is a perfect time for families to play some fun games together! The most popular traditional game is called ‘yut nori‘, which is a board game with four wooden sticks instead of two dice. The main objective of the game is to get all your pawns through to the end and the first one to do that is the winner! Other fun games include ‘jegichagi (a game where you kick a shuttlecock and try and keep it in the air for as long as possible)’, ‘neolitwiggi (a Korean jumping game similar to see-sawing)’, and ‘tuho (a game where people throw sticks into a canister)’. Go to a park and try ‘yeon-naligi (kite flying)’ as well!