Seollal: Origins and Traditions of Korean Lunar New Year
Seollal (Lunar New Year), is one of the traditional Korean calendar’s most important holidays, with the autumn harvest festival Chuseok being equally as revered.
Although its origins are unclear, many say the rituals go back as far as the 6th century. It was during ancient Korea’s Three Kingdoms period when the lunar calendar was first adopted. Today, several Asian countries, including China, Mongolia and Vietnam, all celebrate the lunar New Year holiday. Chinese New Year is undoubtedly the most well-known celebration of the lunar holiday, but that doesn’t make Korea’s expression of the celebration any less interesting!
Typically, Seollal occurs on the second new moon following the winter solstice. Usually the preceding and following days are combined to create a three-day holiday. Traditionally extended families often gather at the eldest brother’s home and food, games, conversation and ancestral rites take place. On the morning of Seollal, people get up early to get ready and dress up by putting on their ‘Seolbim’ (brand-new clothes prepared especially for Seollal).
Seollal is one of the few times when you can expect to see some people wearing Hanbok, the traditional clothing of Korea. After getting ready, the family gathers together to perform the ancestral rites, paying their respects to their ancestors by offering food. According to Korean belief, the spirits of the ancestors return to enjoy the holiday food set out for them. 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.
As another sign of respect, an ancestral tablet is placed on the ritual table along with all the dishes and drinks. The ancestral rites also symbolize the descendants’ prayers for a good new year.
Of course, food is also a focal point of the holiday, with tteokguk (떡국, rice cake soup) as its signature dish. The traditional soup is made with a thin beef broth and slices of the chewy rice cakes. Depending on regional and family variation, egg, beef, dried seaweed and green onions are added.
According to tradition, eating tteokguk on Seollal adds one year to your age. Korean age is calculated using the belief that newborns start at one year old (having spent almost a year in their mother’s womb), and each passing of lunar new year rather than the birthday, adds one year to the person’s age. Since age is incremented on the new year rather than on a birthday, people may be 1 or 2 years older than in the Western system.
On the day before Seollal, family members gather together to prepare the holiday food. The dishes needed for the ancestral rites must be prepared with care, not only made to taste good, but also to look good. As previously mentioned, Seollal’s most important food is tteokguk, but 20 or so other dishes such as wild vegetables, Korean-style pancakes (jeon), various types of fish, galbijjim (rib stew), japchae (noodles with meat and vegetables) etc. are specially prepared in order to perform the ancestral rites. To cook all this food requires long hours of work, and this reality has brought rise to the term ‘명절 증후군’ (‘holiday syndrome’). Unlike the men of the family, the women usually take the bulk of the work and toil in the kitchen all day long preparing holiday food.
There are plenty of popular attractions that are staying open for the holiday weekend. If you plan to go to any palace or shrine event, it may be a good idea to wear a traditional hanbok. Sometimes the traditionally-clad get free access to events!
The major amusement parks (Everland, Lotte World and Seoul Land) are probably the busiest places during Seollal. They offer various traditional games and events to visitors as a great means of entertainment. But if you wanted to visit the provincial areas during this time, you may want to consider changing your schedule. Buses and trains tend to be crowded and traffic is heavy. If you are planning to travel outside Seoul during the holiday season, you need to reserve tickets at least a month before the actual holiday. Don’t forget that other Asian countries will also be celebrating the lunar New Year.
Namsangol Hanok Village is a popular venue on the north slopes of Namsan Park which hosts several madangs (public open spaces) that explore lunar New Year activities, such as calligraphy, kite making and how to correctly perform an ancestor-worship ceremony.
To sample a few hours of traditional village life, head to the Korean Folk Village in Yongin. Start your experience with a traditional Korean exorcism ceremony to ward off evil spirits and ensure a happy and healthy New Year. Follow it up by making abujeok (부적) good luck charm, then test your balance on a traditional Korean seesaw, and then call it day after indulging in some delicious New Year’s delicacies.
The idea that holidays should be even more family centered and less stress for the women is becoming more and more popular in recent times. Because of this, families are dividing the responsibilities for food preparations equally between members, similar to the evolution of Thanksgiving dinners, where now people tend to bring a particular for every one to share. Shops are also buying into this time-saving concept and offering a variety of holiday cooking services. If you order in advance, your holiday dishes can be delivered to your home on the day of Seollal or the day before the actual holiday. Prepared meals have become the preferred “cooking method” for young housewives who may not be so experienced with cooking and those who can afford the luxury.
In addition to this, an increasing number of Christian families are choosing not to perform the ancestral rites due to their religious beliefs and instead focus on the family spending quality time together.