Not even a week passed by after Valentine’s Day but we are already going to celebrate another big occasion: The Lunar New Year!
Lunar, or Chinese New Year in common, will be on the 19th of January this year. If you live in Asia, you must have seen all the Chinese ornaments, Lanterns, lion dances, and of course the Red Envelopes or “HongBao” in many places such as malls and streets.
Korea is also one of the country that celebrates Lunar New Year. They call it Seollal (설날).Seollal is the traditional Korean calendar’s most important holiday, along with the autumn harvest festival, Chuseok. 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 distant family members who will go back to their original home to get together for this special occasion. During Seollal, Koreans traditionally wear hanbok (traditional clothes), perform ancestral rites, play folk games, eat traditional foods, listen to stories, and catch up with one another.
As is custom, the preceding and following days are combined to create a three-day holiday. In Korea, Seollal is when extended families often gather at the eldest brother’s home and food, games, conversation and ancestral rites figure prominently. On the morning of the second day, family members will perform Jesa (제사), a ceremonial rite to honor one’s deceased ancestors. To one’s living elders, deep bows, called sebae (세배), are made. Most children look forward to the cash rewards they receive for their bows.
The days before Seollal Celebrations are chaotic and busy as Seollal demands a lot of preparation,-especially in terms of gifts, traveling, and also the feast. Department stores and markets are usually very crowded during the days leading up to Seollal because people would buy many ancestral gifts with great attention paid to the quality of their shape, color, and freshness. Seollal gifts vary each year depending on economic situations and gift trends, but the most popular ones are department store gift cards and cash. Popular gifts for parents include 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 (traditional sweets and cookies), dried fish, and fruit.
Another important thing to be concerned about during Seollal is travel arrangements. Many people live away from their family because of work, marriage, or study, and therefore must travel to celebrate Seollal with their families. So, you need to hurry to buy buses, trains, or plane tickets before they are all sold out. Traveling by your personal car during the holiday can take over two to four times the normal travel time due to heavy traffic. During the Seollal holiday, the crowded city of Seoul becomes relatively quiet and peaceful, as most people leave the city to return home or travel abroad. Streets become empty and many 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 and traditional games for families.
The morning of Seollal begins with an ancestral ceremony. Family members, each dressed in Hanbok (Korean traditional clothes), gather in front of the ritual table and set on it an ancestral table and dishes of ritual foods, which are according to the laws of ancestral ceremony. Once set, the ceremony begins with deep bows as greetings to the ancestor spirits, and proceeds with offerings and prayers before ending with bidding farewell to the spirits. The ritual is conducted to express respect and gratitude to one’s ancestors and to pray for the family’s well-being throughout the year.
Next, everyone gathers together and eats the ritual food. The main dish of the day is tteokguk, a traditional soup made with sliced rice cakes, beef, egg, vegetables, and other ingredients. In Korea, eating tteokguk on New Year’s Day is believed to add a year to one’s age.
After the meal, the younger generations of the family pay respect to their elders by taking a deep bow called sebae, and by presenting them with gifts. Then, the elders offer their blessings and wishes for a prosperous year. Children often receive sebaetdon (New Year’s money) as a Seollal gift. For the rest of the day, family members play traditional folk games, eat food, and share stories. The most common activity is yutnori, a board game that involves throwing four wooden sticks. This game is so easy to learn that all family members, regardless of age, can enjoy playing in teams and making fun bets. Besides yutnori, traditional games such as jegi-chagi (footbag-like game), neol-twiggi (see-saw), tuho (arrow toss), and yeon-naligi (kite flying) are widely played at places like parks or open areas at palaces and shrines. Lastly, families wind down by going to see a movie or watching Seollal specials on TV.
Let us learn how to say the Lunar New Year’s greeting!
새해 복 많이 받으세요! (Sae-hae- bok- mani- ba- doo- se- yo!)
It means “Please receive lots of good luck in the coming year!”