I love local Asian traditions and customs like no other and was especially happy about spending my first Seollal 설날, Korean Lunar New Year, with my fiancé Jeongsu and his family. I stayed with the family, living in a small countryside village, for a few days and took part in their traditions for the Lunar New Year. It was an amazing experience to celebrate Lunar New Year in Korea.
Here’s how Koreans celebrate Lunar New Year:
Just like in many other Asian countries, Lunar New Year in Korea is at the end of January or at the beginning of February, on the day of the second new moon after winter solstice. The tradition to celebrate “Seollal” comes from the Chinese and seems to be firstly introduced during the Silla dynasty in Korea (57 BC – 935 AD). This year, Seollal was celebrated from February 7 – February 9. In 2017, Korean Lunar New Year falls on January 27 and ends January 30. During this time, most people are usually off work and enjoy time with their families.
The First Day of Lunar New Year in Korea
On the first day of Seollal, February 7 of this year, people prepare food and clean their homes to receive guests or to travel to their relatives. Traditionally, the oldest son’s family hosts the feast and ceremony each year. This means, the oldest son’s family needs to cook many dishes and buy lots of snacks to receive the guests on the second day of Seollal. Typically, the relatives arrive in the late afternoon or evening. They also help preparing and get ready for the ceremony and feast the next day. I helped my mother-in-law preparing different dishes, which turned out to be a lot of fun!
People greet each other saying 새해 복 많이 받으세요, which translates to “Please receive good fortune for the New Year”.
The Second Day of Lunar New Year in Korea
This is the most important day of the holidays. Everyone gets up early in the morning, around 7 AM, to prepare to hold a ceremony to honor the ancestors. We then place the food prepared from the day before on an altar-like table. Then, everyone needs to take part in the ceremony and bow to the ancestors. Among the many foods offered is meat, fish, vegetables, Korean pancakes, cookies, different fruits as well as alcohol. Every member of the family offers a drink to the ancestors, which they then pour in a large bowl to collect it. After the offering, the lights are turned off and people wait for a few minutes to give the ancestors time to consume the foods. Finally, everybody performs a deep bow and the food is enjoyed together.
To be honest, I had a hard time getting all the food down that early in the morning, not too mention drinking so much liquor. A Western stomach might not be used to such an early feast.
The morning ceremony can end between 9 and 10 AM. The rest of the day is there for spending time with the family or visiting close family friends to perform a deep bow to receive a money envelope. This traditional is called “세배” and is usually performed by children who bow to the elders of the family.
Typical food on this day is tteokguk, a soup made of thinly sliced rice cakes.
The Third Day of Seollal
On the third and final day of Seollal, many people either stay at home and spend time with their families. Others like to visit other relatives in different cities. Popular activities include hiking, flying kites or playing traditional games such as tuho or yut.
Lunar New Year in China
Celebrating Seollal was definitely a very different experience than celebrating the same holiday in China. Even though the festival has the exact same origin and is celebrated for the same reasons, China and Korea have quite distinct customs how to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Make sure you check out my post about Chinese New Year.