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Seollal, The Korean New Year

December 30th, 2009 by

The most important festival in South Korea is Seollal, the lunar new year. This 3-day holiday, which is centered around the family, compels an estimated 28 million Koreans to return to their hometowns every year and visit their relatives to partake in several rituals as the new year approaches. Train tickets are reserved a month in advance by many people traveling home on the same days, while food and gift purchases are highest during this time, making it the busiest time of the year for many Korean department stores and malls. Road traffic to provinces becomes a mess, and all radio stations provide frequent live updates on traffic conditions to assist with the migration of the masses.

Early in the morning of Seollal, Korean family members wear the hanbok and perform the ritual of charye. The men of each family offer tteokguk to their ancestors, a clear beef broth with chewy rice cakes that are sliced into oval shapes.  The cord-like white rice cake signifies new birth, and the oval slices resemble coins, a sign of prosperity. Wooden cups are also filled with sul (wine) and placed on the ancestral stand. After pieces of white paper containing the names of the ancestors are burned, the men take first turn drinking the offered wine and eating the rice, followed by the women.


Afterward charye, children deeply bow to their elders (sebae) and greet them with saehae bok manhi badeuseyo, which means “may you receive many blessings in the new year”. The seniors then give words of wisdom as well as gifts of money (sabae-don) in turn, preferably in crisp bills. Then the first breakfast of the new year is served, using the same type of dishes offered to the family ancestors. These may include jeon (Korean pancakes), hotpot, grilled meat and dried fish.  The tteokguk is a must-serve dish during Seollal, as tradition states that one can only grow older upon partaking of the broth; hence, an indirect way of asking someone’s age is to inquire how much tteokguk one has eaten in his or her life.

To attract luck, bokjori are hung around houses, bamboo-woven ladles which are associated with bountiful harvests and good fortune. Bokjori are commonly sold on New Year’s eve by street vendors who go from door to door in each neighborhood. Many Koreans also travel to east coast locations such as Gangneung and Donghae in Gangwon province, where they bathe in the first rays of the new year.

Traditional games are also played during Seollal. Yutnori is one such board game, where 4 sticks are thrown instead of dice; other games include yeonnaligi (kite-flying) and tuho (throwing sticks in a barrel).  Families would troop to festivals or traditional villages fo a chance to play these games. Fortune-telling is also a favorite activity during this time of year. In the past, yut sticks inscribed with gold, tree, fire, soil and water are thown to the ground and interpreted based on the positions they landed. Another form of fortune-telling is tojeongbigyeol, a complex series of calculations done by an expert to determine one’s fortunes for an entire year.

Visitors can enjoy Seollal in traditional villages like Namsangol Hanok Village. Some of the activities are hanbok-tying, food-tasting, craft-making and fortune-telling. It is advised to avoid traveling along national roads as they are packed during this time of year.

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