Happy Seollal! Seollal (Lunar New Year) is the biggest national holiday of the year in Korea and is one of two large holidays rivaling Chuseok in the traffic jam stakes! Koreans typically celebrate two New Years – “Solar New Year” on January 1st and their more traditional “Lunar New Year” which falls on a different date each year in accordance with the Lunar calendar.
This year Seollal is on Friday January 31st with the day before and after also being a national holiday to allow for travel to and from the family home. For those who are celebrating their first Lunar New Year I thought it would be helpful to share the most common Seollal traditions that you may experience if you get the chance to spend it with a Korean family.
Food is taken very seriously on Seollal and for good reason too. It all centers around the notion of family. Family is a big thing in Korea and on Seollal the biggest part of the day is the ancestral rights or remembering and paying respects to deceased family members. Koreans believe that the spirits of dead family members come back to share and enjoy the food offerings prepared for the Lunar New Years celebrations. For this reason, families spend a great deal of time, money and effort ensuring that the the food is not only delicious but meticulously presented.
The most popular food is TteokGuk or rice cake soup which is said to add an extra year to your age! TteokGuk is on every table in every family home on Seollal… you could say that without TteokGuk there would be no Seollal! It is, however, not the only food on offer with tables being laid out with more dishes than you can count – all in the name of pleasing the ancestor’s spirit.
2. GIFT GIVING!
Department stores and supermarkets are CRAZY on the run up to Seollal. What was once a peaceful Tuesday afternoon shopping turns into wall to wall mayhem as people scarper around for gifts to offer to their family members. Koreans lack the Christmas spirit of gift giving but more than make up for it at Seollal!
The type of gifts given at this time of year seem weird to us foreigners. Whilst we prefer to give things like perfume, DVD’s and clothes, Koreans like to give useful things as a gift. You’ll see them buying gift packs of cooking oil, SPAM box sets (yeah, I know), multipacks of toothpaste and mega boxes of toilet roll!
If you are invited to a co worker or friend’s house for Seollal be sure to purchase a gift which you should do any time you are invited to a Korean’s home.
3. CHILDREN RECEIVE CASH!
Children are extremely fond of Seollal. A typical conversation with a student goes like this:
“What will you do for Seollal?”
“Money!” (rubs fingers)
Grandparents give monetary gifts to their grandchildren as a one of Seollal’s great traditions. Typically, the amount of money varies by school level: Elementary students get 100,000 won, Middle School students get 150,000 won and High School students get even more. Sadly, children don’t get to keep all this money and the conversation above advances to:
“What will you buy with the money?”
“Nothing. My mom steals it!”
Which is not typically true. Parents will usually take half the money and put it into a savings account for their child whilst leaving them with the other half. This varies per family with some families taking it all and others taking none.
4. IT’S EVERYONE’S BIRTHDAY!
No kidding… Seollal is every Korean’s birthday. How does that work? Well, traditionally speaking, Koreans count their age by how many Lunar New Year’s they have experienced. Nowadays most have an “international age” and a “Korean age” to help us foreigners understand a bit better. I remember being gobsmacked when I asked my students “When is your birthday?” and most of them not being able to tell me when it was!
To make matters even worse, Korean’s can be 2 years old before they have turned 1! Yes, it gets even more confusing. All Koreans are born 1 years old. So if they are born before Seollal they are 1 years old and then turn 2 on Seollal. Most foreigners quite rightly refuse to partake in this ritual and would prefer it if you aged backwards instead!
If you are in Korea I hope you enjoy the extended break from work and fingers crossed you get the chance to experience some Seollal traditions in a Korean home!