Explaining Seollal, Korean Lunar New Year

Korea International School

This year’s Lunar New Year, one of the most significant traditional holidays for Koreans, will be on January 25th, 2020. Although around 36 million travel across Korea in order to visit relatives, many don’t know where it comes from.

Seollal is a cultural holiday rooted in traditional Chinese Confucianism, which is celebrated on the first day of the Korean lunar calendar. It usually lasts three days, including the day before and the day after the set date.

The Book of Sui and the Book of Tang have the first recorded histories of Silla, an old kingdom from BC 57 to 935 AD that celebrating Seollal. The Joseon dynasty, a renowned kingdom from 1392 to 1897, also has traces of government officials gathering in the five grand palaces to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

Seollal is a unique Korean tradition, influenced by China, that is based on the lunar cycle. Each year represents a different animal, and the cycle is repeated every 12 years. The 12 animals go as following : mouse, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.  The order of the animals are believed to have been derived from the sequence in which they were invited to see Buddha.

Koreans believe that the animal represented in the year that a baby is born will attribute certain qualities to that baby. There are even some parents who plan the birth year of their children according to this belief. 2020 is the year of the mouse.

The various customs of Seollal include various traditions. Many Koreans return to their hometowns, usually outside of Seoul, in order to visit parents and relatives. It is considered important and respectful to visit annually. On the first day, Koreans perform ancestral rituals called cha-rye. During the ritual, they pay their respect towards their ancestors by placing food in front of pictures or names of the deceased. Sometimes, Koreans dress in traditional attire, called the han-bok, while they do this. They then bow and offer their anecestors mak-geol-li, or traditional Korean rice-wine.

After cha-rye, the Sae bae ritual takes place, where the younger bow to the elderly and say “Sae-hae bok ma-ni ba-deu-sae-yo,” which translates into “Please receive good fortunes for this new year.” When they do this, the younger are given pocket money, along with dok-dam, or also short words of wisdom.

Tteok-guk, rice cake soup, is a traditional Korean food that many eat during Seollal. It is usually said that eating tteok-guk makes you one year older. Jeon, or also bu-chim-gae, is savory pancake with green onions and other vegetables.

As for traditional folk games, Yut-no-ri is a typical game during the holiday. It is played with specially designed sticks and specific but simple rules. Yeon flying and je-gi-cha-gi are leisure games played with kites and lightweight objects wrapped in paper.

Preparations during Seollal, which include travel, holiday gifts, traditional food, and fruits can add up very quickly economically. Therefore, as many Korean families become smaller and more individualistic, current trends have turned to decreasing expenses and focusing on the time spent together.

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