**Last updated on: 15 February 2021**
12 February 2021 is Seollal (설날 – the Lunar New Year’s Day), which is one of the important festivals in South Korea. Seollal falls on the 1st day of the 1st month of the lunar calendar and family members and relatives get together to celebrate. So, how do the Koreans celebrate Seollal? There are many interesting rituals and I will talk about some of them and the reasons behind in this blog post. I will also introduce the cultural activities to be held in South Korea (mainly Seoul) for both locals and foreigners during the Seollal holiday period.
In South Korea, there is a consecutive Seollal public holiday period and in 2021, the holidays are from 11 to 14 February 2021. Given the consecutive public holiday period, usually many people go back to their hometown for Seollal and traffic during this period is very congested. However, in 2021, due to Covid-19, the government has asked the people to avoid gatherings and stay at home, and has imposed a ban on social gatherings of 5 or more which applies even for family members unless they are living in the same house. So, there are some changes in the manner in which some rituals are performed.
New Year’s greetings
First and foremost, it is important to learn how to say “Happy Lunar New Year” in Korean since it is a widely-used Korean phrase for Seollal. In my blog post dated 5 January 2015 on how the Koreans celebrate the western New Year, it is mentioned that for “Happy New Year!”, the Koreans say, “새해 복 많이 받으세요.” – literally, it means, “Please receive a lot of luck or blessings in the New Year”. This can also be used for Seollal. If you wish to know how to pronounce it, please click the link to the Youtube video below:
At least one week before Seollal, the Koreans are busy shopping to buy Seollal gifts for their family members and friends. In the gift-giving series of my blog posts, it is mentioned that Koreans may give Spam (luncheon meat) gift sets and cash as gifts for Seollal to their family members and friends. Other popular gifts for Seollal may include meat, fish, fruit, ginseng, honey, health products, massage chairs, toiletries (e.g., shampoo, soap, toothpaste), dried fish and hangwa (한과 – traditional Korean cookies). Alternatively, cash can also be a good gift for Koreans.
In 2021, due to the social distancing measures banning social gatherings of 5 or more, people may not be able to meet with their family members. So, there is a new trend in Seollal gifts – people may choose to send take-out meals offered by the hotels to their family members to share a sense of comfort that they are having the same meal.
Rituals on Seollal’s Eve
There is a Korean belief that ghosts come to the human world to steal shoes on the eve of Seollal. The ghosts take the shoes that fit them, bestowing bad luck on the shoe owners for the entire year. So, people hide their shoes in safe places to prevent them from being stolen by the ghosts on Seollal’s eve.
First things to do on Seollal morning
According to the Korean tradition, in the morning of Seollal, people buy bokjori (복조리 – bamboo strainer used for washing rice before cooking) and hang it high on a wall in the house to bring good luck and fortune. It is believed that the earlier one buys the bokjori, the larger fortune it will bring.
In my blog post dated 16 February 2015 on Hanbok (한복 – Korean traditional clothing), it is mentioned that Koreans wear Hanbok for important events like Seollal. On Seollal morning, Koreans put on their new Hanbok with bright and pretty colours to symbolize hopes for a bright future and go to their elders’ homes to celebrate this festival together.
Charye (차례 – ancestral worship ceremony)
Koreans believe that their ancestors return to enjoy the ritual food prepared for them on Seollal. So, they pay tribute to their ancestors by performing a ritual called “charye” with their family members. Charye is a memorial service that prays for the peace and good health of the ancestors. The charye table is set with a variety of food which must have nice shapes and colours and must be fresh. People in Seoul and Gyeonggi-do Province usually place the food on the charye table according to the rules set out in the book entitled ‘Zhu Xi’s Family Rituals’, for example, having jujubes, chestnuts, pears and dried persimmons placed from left to right, and placing fish at the table’s east with their heads facing east and meat at the table’s west. Ingredients that have strong scents such as green onions or garlic should not be used as they may ward off the ancestors. Nowadays people who are not familiar with the rules of setting the charye table can use a smartphone application called Jesa Whiz which can tell users where to put the different dishes on the charye table.
The most important ritual food is tteokguk (떡국 – rice cake soup) and there are at least a dozen other dishes including fish, galbijjim (갈비찜 – braised short ribs), japchae (잡채 – sweet potato noodles with meat and vegetables), jeon (전 – Korean pancakes containing chopped vegetables), hangwa (한과 – Korean traditional cookies), fruits and other dishes made of various kinds of vegetables, meat and fish. Preparing the ritual food takes a lot of time and efforts and nowadays some people may use the holiday catering services. A Korean family is expected to spend around US$170 for charye.
During charye, family members make two full bows on their knees and then a bow while half-standing and offer prayers to their ancestors. After charye is performed, the family members share the ritual food together, hoping that the virtues of their ancestors will be passed onto themselves.
In 2021, apart from take-out meals, hotels are also offering take-out charye table consisting of beef short ribs, a plate full of stir-fried noodles, and pancakes made of vegetables, meat and fish – all freshly made by the hotel kitchen. People may just add a bowl of Tteokguk (rice cake soup) and some fruits to make a charye table. This costs around US$150 though this may vary among hotels. With the help of these take-out charye table, people can easily set up a full charye table even without the help of other family members who may not be able to come.
Eating Tteokguk (떡국 – rice cake soup)
Tteokguk is the traditional food of Seollal which represents piety, dignity and the new year. It is a traditional soup made of thinly sliced white tteok (떡 – rice cake), beef, egg and vegetables. Koreans eat tteokguk with family members in the morning of Seollal. It is believed that one gets one year older by eating a bowl of tteokguk. The Koreans like to ask each other how many bowls of tteokguk they have eaten and joke about the number of years that they will get old. So, although tteokguk is tasty, don’t eat more than one bowl; otherwise you will get old very quickly! 🙂
Sebae (세배 – New Year’s bow)
After the meal, the young family members perform sebae (New Year’s bow) and present gifts to the elders and exchange New Year’s wishes and blessings for good health and fortune. The elders also give out sebaedon (세뱃돈 – New Year’s money in new banknotes) to the young family members. Please note that males and females differ in the ways of performing sebae. You can watch this video to check out the correct ways of performing sebae.
After receipt, the sebaedon is usually put into bokjumeoni (복주머니 – fortune pouch). Bokjumeoni is a drawstring silk or cotton pouch embroidered with various auspicious symbols that are believed to bring fortune and can be a round pouch or a pouch with ears.
In 2021, due to the social gathering restriction, sebae goes online and this is done by way of virtual meetings or pre-recorded greetings. Sebaedon is also sent online.
Family fun activities
For the remainder of the day, Koreans play traditional folk games and share stories with their family members. Popular games played on Seollal include yutnori (윷놀이 – board game involving throwing 4 wooden sticks), jegichagi (제기차기 – a game involving kicking a badminton shuttlecock-like object, similar to hacky-sack), tuho (투호 – arrow pitching), Go-stop (고스톱 – card game often involving betting small sums of money played by 2 or 3 people) and yeonnaligi (연날리기 – kite-flying). Family members may also go to see a movie or watch the TV Seollal specials together. In South Korea, there is a thumb-sized app and device called Chromecast which allows people to play different TV channels on a single screen, thus allowing family members to watch the TV together even though they may want to watch different TV programmes.
Cultural activities to be held during the Seollal holiday period
During the Seollal holiday period, tourist spots like folk villages and royal palaces hold special events relating to the rituals of Seollal like performing sebae, eating tteokguk and playing traditional folk games to celebrate Seollal for both locals and foreigners and most of these activities are free of charge. The tourist information centre located at the Korea Tourism Organization’s Seoul Office in Jung-gu will hold free cultural activities like taking photos in Hanbok, folding origami bokjumeoni and playing traditional folk games.
Also, in 2021, due to the pandemic which makes more people stay at home, the Seoul city has arranged some performances for people to enjoy online – please look at this video for detail. You can also go to this youtube channel where you can find a variety of Korean performances (both modern and traditional) for you to enjoy.
Happy Lunar New Year!! 새해 복 많이 받으세요. 🙂
Reminder: The blog post of 23 February 2015 will provide more interesting tips about the Lunar New Year.
Kim Bo-kyoung, “Preparing traditional ‘Charye’ tables for Lunar New Year Holiday“, Arirang News, 2021-02-10
Min Suk-hyen, “Families turn to take-out Charye tables, meals this Lunar New Year“, Arirang News, 2021-02-10
Lee Kyung-eun, “Lunar New Year traditions go non-contact as S. Korea keeps ban on gatherings of five or more“, Arirang News, 2021-02-08
“Seollal in Korea: Glimpse of Local Customs“, Korea Tourism Organization, 2021-01-14
Kim Kyung-jin and Kim Young-nam, “Local banks celebrate Seollal with giveaways“, Korea JoongAng Daily, 2016-02-02
Rumy Doo, “Celebrating holiday with tradition“, The Korea Herald, 2015-02-13 – you can check out the holiday activities to be held in South Korea (mainly Seoul) in which both Koreans and foreigners can participate.
Kim Ji-yeon, “Useful apps for Lunar New Year holiday in Korea“, Arirang News, 2015-02-18
“Lunar New Year traffic to increase from last year“, The Chosun Ilbo, 2015-02-11
“Koreans expected to spend 1.8% less on Lunar New Year ancestral rite in 2015“, Arirang News, 2015-01-04
Yvonne Kim, “Seollal, Korean Lunar New Year“, Asia Society, 2014-02-01 – more detail on how to play Gostop and yutnori games
Park Ji-won, “Expats celebrate Lunar New Year holiday in Korean way“, Arirang News, 2014-01-29
Sohn Ji-ae, “Seollal seasoned with traditional foods and folk games“, About KoreaㆍInfo Korea, 2013-02-10
Jingi Cheon (ed.), Encyclopedia of Korean Seasonal Customs, Seoul: The National Folk Museum of Korea, 2010-06-30, pp. 30-46
Yvonne Kim, “Lunar New Year Korean style“, Asia Society, 2008-02-13
“Seollal: One of the biggest traditional fests“, The Korea Times, 2008-02-05