Seollal in Korea: Celebrating Korean Lunar New Year

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Women in hanbok, traditional outfits sometimes worn during Seollal in Korea (or Korean Lunar New Year)

Lunar New Year is a holiday celebrated in multiple parts of the world, but especially in communities across Asia. When people say that it’s now the year of the tiger, dragon, or other figures of the animal zodiac, this is the holiday they mean.

This post will discuss Korean Lunar New Year, known as Seollal in Korean, including traditions, foods, greetings, and gifts, as well as a bit about Lunar New Year in general. It also includes some tips for tourists looking to travel in South Korea around Seollal.

What is Lunar New Year?

Lunar New Year is simply the start of a new year for lunisolar calendars. The dates for these new year celebrations differ from the festivities of New Year’s Eve and Day for the Gregorian calendar, which is a solar calendar.

The Gregorian calendar is most likely what you think of when you think of dates and calendars, as it’s used by most of the world. The whole January, February, 365 days except leap year calendar.

Lunar New Year in Asia generally takes place over a few days, with the exact dates varying year to year. It usually occurs sometime between late January and early February. For instance, Lunar New Year is “officially” around January 23rd in 2023, and was around February 1st in 2022. Lunar New Year 2024 will be around February 10th.

Chinese New Year versus Lunar New Year

You might have heard a holiday called “Chinese New Year.” Chinese New Year is a Lunar New Year festival, and it’s one of the most significant holidays in China and for Chinese diaspora.

But Chinese New Year and Lunar New Year aren’t the same thing, unless you’re talking about the Lunar New Year celebrations in Chinese communities.

Lunar New Year is a general term that refers to the various holidays related to the new year for lunisolar calendars. It also usually means celebrations in regions across Asia.

Besides China, Lunar New Year in Asia includes Seollal in South Korea and North Korea, Tết Nguyên Đán (or Tết) in Vietnam, Tsagaan Sar in Mongolia, and Losar in Tibet. Each area has its own version of the holiday, with specific traditions, foods, and so on.

Some of the local lunisolar calendars in these areas are derived from the Chinese lunisolar calendar, so the holidays often occur approximately on the same days. However, there can be slight variations between these local calendars.

What is Seollal/Korean Lunar New Year?

Seollal is the celebration of Korean New Year, or more specifically Korean Lunar New Year. Seollal (설날 in hangul) is one of the most important holidays in South Korea along with Chuseok, Korea’s Mid-Autumn Festival.

Seollal is when Koreans celebrate the new year of the traditional Korean calendar, which is lunisolar. Koreans might do a little something to celebrate December 31st/January 1st, but not to the extent of other countries. It’s not their main new year.

For everyday purposes, Koreans use the Gregorian calendar. But for certain holidays like Seollal and Chuseok, the holiday dates are based on their traditional calendar.

Seollal Traditions

There is a lot of overlap in the traditions for Seollal and Chuseok. Like Chuseok, Seollal is a holiday where people return to their hometowns to spend time with family.

For both holidays, Koreans often perform an ancestral rite called charye. Charye is a ceremony during which people prepare a table with offerings to their ancestors, to commemorate those who have passed. Offerings on the table can include prepared foods, drinks, incense, and the names or portraits of the deceased family members.

Many Koreans also visit and clean the grave sites of their ancestors (seongmyo and beolcho). However, not every family engages in some or any of these practices.

But there are also many traditions that are practiced more frequently for Seollal in Korea.

Younger members of a family will perform a deep bow (called sebae) to their elders. This is usually done to their grandparents and parents, but can include aunts and uncles.

Children and young adults typically receive money (sebaet don) as a present after the bows are done, often packaged in silk bags with traditional designs (bokjumeoni; meaning “lucky pouch”).

Many Koreans will dress up in hanbok (traditional Korean clothing), especially kids. At the English kindergartens I worked at in Korea, kids would wear hanbok at both our Seollal and Chuseok parties. They were always so cute and colorful in their outfits!

Some families also play traditional games, such as yut nori. Yut nori is a board game during which two teams throw sticks instead of dice to determine how many spaces your piece can move on the board. Each team has four pieces, and you win by getting all your pieces around the board and back to the start.

Other popular traditional games are yeonnalligi and neolttwigi. Yeonnalligi is a game involving kites. Neolttwigi is a game during which participants stand on basically a seesaw and propel the other person into the air. Yeonnalligi was traditionally played by men and boys, and neolttwigi was traditionally played by women and girls.

Seollal Foods

One of the main foods that Koreans eat for Seollal is tteokguk (also spelled ddeokguk). Tteokguk is a soup with sliced rice cakes in it.

This soup will also have meat, sliced egg, seaweed, and spring onions. Sesame oil is often added in before you eat it. Eating tteokguk is supposed to bring you good luck in the new year and make you turn a year older.

Jeon, or savory pancakes, are also typically eaten. A variety of ingredients may be added to jeon, including kimchi, meat, seafood, and vegetables.

Korean Age versus International Age

Koreans “turn” one year older on Seollal. This is for Korean age, not international age. By international age, I mean the time between when someone is born and the current date (what most people will think of when they think of age).

What is Korean age? Koreans are considered to be one year older on Lunar New Year, even if they were just born. Usually someone’s Korean age is about one year older than their international age, sometimes two.

How does that work? When a baby is born, they are considered to be one year old in Korean age. If that baby is born right before Seollal, such as in December or January, that baby will be considered another year older after Seollal.

In Korea, age is extremely important. Korean age is used in social relationships, delineating who is older, who is younger, and who is your peer (in the case of two people of the same age). This establishes the level of speech formality and relationship dynamic between two people.

Seollal Greetings

To wish someone Happy New Year in Korean, you say “새해 복 많이 받으세요” (saehae bok manhi baduseyo). This means “Please receive lots of luck/good fortune this year.”

This phrase is roughly pronounced like this: say-hay boke mah-nee ba-doo-say-yo.

This Lunar New Year greeting is of a high formality level, so you can say this to everyone, including your elders/seniors, bosses, teachers, et cetera. But you can also use this phrase with your friends or people younger than you.

There is also 근하신년 (geunhasinnyeon), which is also formal but a bit archaic, as it’s a hanja phrase (謹賀新年). Before Korea’s current writing system, hangul, was created, Koreans used a writing system of Chinese characters called hanja.

Very often, words or phrases coming from hanja are seen as more literary and aren’t used frequently in everyday life. Despite having studied Korean for 6 years, I hadn’t even heard of this hanja phrase for Happy New Year until discussing this article with a Korean friend.

So the second phrase does exist, but just stick with the first phrase to say Happy New Year in Korean.

Seollal Gifts

Beyond money for the kids and young adults in the family, family members also exchange gifts. There is a huge variety of gift sets available to purchase before both Seollal and Chuseok.

This includes very expensive fruit sets, food products (e.g. traditional Korean confections, meat, cooking oil), and hygiene items (e.g. shampoo, toothpaste). I have personally received a set of ginseng-flavored toothpaste and shampoo (neither were very good) and boxes of very large, fancy fruit from my Korean bosses.

My set of monster fruit

Sets of Spam are also pretty widespread. Fun fact: the processed meat product Spam is extremely popular in South Korea! They are the world’s number two consumer of Spam, after the United States.

How long would it take you to eat nine containers of Spam?

But not all gifts for Seollal come in gift sets. It’s common to give premium baked goods like cakes, wine and other alcohol, gift cards, ginseng, and health products.

Seollal for Tourists

If you visit South Korea around Korean Lunar New Year, there are a few things that you should know.

First, some attractions may have limited hours or be closed on the three days of Seollal (the official day, and the days before and after). Often, you can find out a spot’s holiday hours on their website or social media channels, though this information may be in Korean.

Second, other attractions that are open may be busier than usual, because it’s one of the few periods of time that Koreans have a longer stretch of time off. For example, amusement parks like Lotte World or Everland might be pretty crowded.

But then again, some attractions might be relatively empty, making it a great time to visit! Seoul especially slows down as many people leave the capital area to return to their hometowns. So just take this into consideration when you’re planning where to visit when.

Third, plan your transportation accordingly. The traffic in and out of cities, especially Seoul, will be horrible on each end of the holiday. This means that buses and taxis will take longer to get anywhere, as will driving yourself. The highway between Seoul and Busan gets particularly congested.

In addition, train and plane tickets can get bought out very quickly. In some cases, tickets are sold out minutes after becoming available. If you’re thinking of intercity travel, be aware of dates and reserve your transportation in advance, and realize you may be in for a longer journey.

Fourth, there aren’t many ways for visitors to partake in Seollal festivities, as it’s a family-oriented holiday. But some of the major tourist attractions in bigger cities might have some Seollal programming around or before the holiday.

The National Folk Museum of Korea in Seoul often has events and activities related to major holidays that visitors can partake in. You can also seek out restaurants serving tteokguk so you can make sure you turn one year older! You can also try rent a hanbok and wearing your traditional outfit around the palaces or a hanok village.

Want to learn about another Korean holiday? Read about Buddha’s Birthday festivities in South Korea!

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