By Seho Park
On February 8, South Korea will celebrate Lunar New Year, called Seollal in Korean. Most Koreans get three days of vacation for the occasion, which is one of the most important annual holidays in Korea. Although some traditions have fallen out of popularity as Korea modernized, there are still many customs associated with this holiday.
Seollal is a very family-oriented celebration. So as the holiday approaches, much of the Korean population heads out of Seoul and other cities to join their families in smaller, rural hometowns. Traffic can become incredibly congested – the Korea Expressway Corporation estimates that 420,000 vehicles will leave the Seoul metropolitan area for this holiday weekend.
During Seollal, Koreans make a variety of foods to serve to family who have gathered for the occasion. One of the key dishes is Tteokguk (떡국), a mild soup with sliced white rice cakes. Koreans calculate age differently than other countries, and regard the New Year as similar to a birthday for Koreans. Once you finish eating your tteokguk, you are one year older. The white rice cakes represent the dawn of a new year and the round shape recalls a time when Koreans used to worship the sun.
In addition, jeon, sometimes called buchimgae(부침개), is a type of savory pancake that is typically eaten on New Year’s Day. Popular types of jeon are green onion, kimchi, and seafood. The secret to delicious jeon is to rip it apart with chopsticks rather than using a knife.
Many traditional games are associated with the Korean New Year. The traditional family board game yunnori (윷놀이) is still a popular game nowadays, especially during Seollal. It is played using different types of specially designed sticks. Each player throws the sticks, and depending on how they land the player can move their token around a game board.
In the past, men and boys would fly rectangle kites called yeon (연) and play jegichagi (제기차기), a game in which a light object is wrapped in paper or cloth, and then kicked – similar to a hackey sack. Korean women and girls would have traditionally played neolttwi (널뛰기) a game of jumping on a seesaw, and gongginori (공기놀이), a game played with five little stones, while children would spin tops (팽이).
Sebeh is an important tradition on Seollal related to filial piety. Children wish their elders (grandparents, aunts and uncles, parents) a happy new year by performing one deep traditional bow (rites with more than one bow involved are usually for the deceased) and the words “saehae bok mani badeuseyo” (새해 복 많이 받으세요) which translates to “Please receive a lot of luck in the New Year.” Parents typically reward this gesture by giving their children New Year’s money, or “pocket money,” usually in the form of crisp paper money. They put this money in luck bags made with beautiful silk design and offering words of wisdom for the children. Historically, parents gave out rice cakes and fruit to their children instead. Before and during the bowing ceremony, children wear traditional Korean hanbok outfits (한복) as a respectful way to appreciate their ancestors and elders.
Seho Park is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. He is also a BA candidate at Soongsil University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Epic Fireworks’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.