Korean Lunar New Year (Seollal): Traditions, Date & Origins

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Celebrating the beginning of a new year is a cultural tradition many of us share. Although most people consider January 1 to be the start of a new year, many cultures celebrate the new year at other times. 

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Consider the example of Seollal. This celebration marks the traditional Korean Lunar New Year. Falling between January 20 and February 21 (the exact dates of Seollal can change from year to year), it’s a three-day holiday during which many South Korean families gather to look back on the year that has passed and look forward to the year ahead.

Just like Korean funerals provide insights into the ways Korean honor and mourn the dead, investigating Seollal allows us to see how Koreans value and celebrate life and the changing of the seasons. This brief guide will provide a general overview of the celebration and help you appreciate why many Koreans consider it to be extremely important.

What is the Korean New Year (Seollal)? 

Seollal usually falls on the second new moon following the winter solstice. Like a harvest festival, Seollal recognizes the cycle of seasons. As a celebration of the new year, Seollal allows Korean families to rest after a year’s work, while also preparing themselves for the year to come.

Origin

Scholars aren’t entirely certain precisely how long Koreans have been celebrating Seollal. Research indicates Seollal first became a major Korean holiday during the reign of the Goryeo dynasty, which lasted from 918 C.E. to 1392 C.E. 

During this time, Seollal (also known as Seol by some) was one of nine important festivals that focused on ancestral ceremonies. Remembering one’s ancestors remains a common element of Seollal celebrations throughout Korea today.

Where it’s celebrated

Both North and South Koreans celebrate Seollal. Many families throughout both countries participate in the festivities.

This can cause some travel difficulties, particularly in South Korea. Because so many families spend Seollal with loved ones, as it approaches, many Koreans make travel arrangements in advance to ensure they can reach their family members in time for the celebration.

Many consider Seollal to be the most important Korean holiday of the year.

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When is the Korean Lunar New Year and How Long Does it Last?

The specific dates on which Seollal falls will vary from year to year. Seollal began on January 25 in 2020. In 2021, it will start on February 12. In 2022, it will begin on February 1.

The celebration lasts for three days. Like other cultures, Koreans begin the festivities the day before the new year actually begins. They continue celebrating on the day of the new year and the day after.

Korean Lunar New Year (Seollal) Traditions

Cultural traditions can develop and change over time and not all families celebrate the same. The following rituals and traditions are common among Koreans celebrating Seollal, but there are instances when families modify or abstain from certain practices. Here are some of the more popular traditions:

Food

During Seollal, food is part of a ritual that serves to honor a family’s ancestors. The rite is called charea. Korean families traditionally prepare a range of foods, including meat, fish, alcoholic beverages, and a rice cake soup known as tteokguk.

Once the food is prepared, Koreans will usually arrange it in a particular order on a table according to ancestral rite laws. They’ll ritually bow to show respect for their ancestors before starting to eat. They may also make a point not to include certain foods in the meal.

For example, although Koreans often prepare fruit for Seollal meals, they won’t use peaches. This is because traditional beliefs state that peaches will ward off ghosts. When Koreans are trying to honor their deceased loved ones, they don’t want to keep their spirits away.

Some Korean families no longer perform these ancestral rites. To some degree, this is because the preparation is too difficult. Perhaps more significantly, many families no longer adhere to traditional Korean religious beliefs. Thus, they consider the ancestral rite to be an unnecessary part of the Seollal celebrations.

That said, food doesn’t just serve to show respect to a family’s ancestors during Seollal. Traditional Korean folk wisdom holds that a person will not grow a year older until first completing a bowl of tteokguk. While many families don’t actually believe this is true any longer, the folk custom is one of the reasons tteokguk is still a popular Seollal dish.

Bowing ceremony

Ancestors aren’t the only ones Korean families honor during Seollal. Children will often participate in the saebae ritual as well. This involves bowing to the older generation to show respect. In response, a child’s elders will often speak words of blessing.

Gifts

Luckily for Korean children, their elders don’t merely offer words of blessing after they perform the saebae ritual. Traditionally, they give children money, gifts, or both.

This arrangement can change when a child reaches adulthood. Once they’re an adult, many Korean families expect them to give presents or money to their elders, not the other way around.

Visiting graves

On the day the new year begins, Koreans might also visit their ancestors’ graves to further show respect.

Remembering ancestors is important to Korean culture in general. For instance, along with the Seollal rituals, Koreans often perform a Jesa ceremony for the dead. 

The ceremony begins with the preparation of food and drink. Koreans will then create shrines to deceased family members. These typically feature a photo of the deceased, along with a written prayer.

After the meal and traditional bowing ceremony, Koreans will visit the tombs of deceased loved ones to clean them. 

Some Korean families include the entire Jesa ceremony in their Seollal celebrations. That said, in general, they typically reserve the full Jesa ceremony for the anniversary of a loved one’s death

Antaek

Not all Seollal traditions remain as popular as they once were. Once a popular ritual, Antaek has become less so over time. During this ritual, a shaman would come to the home of Korean families celebrating Seollal and perform an exorcism rite that involved praying for a home’s safety over the course of the next year.

Today, this ritual is considered an inspiration for Seollal and Chuseok, a traditional Korean harvest festival.

Ghosts

This is less of a ritual and more of a folk belief. Specifically, traditional Korean folk beliefs state that the spirits of the dead would return to Earth on the night of New Year’s Eve. They would try on the shoes of those they visited, and if the shoes fit, they would steal them.

When this happened, the person whose shoes the ghost stole would experience a year of misfortune. That’s why many Koreans used to hide their shoes on New Year’s Eve. 

Other Korean folk beliefs say ghosts will descend on the living on the first full moon instead.

Seollal: A Time for Reflection and Celebration

We don’t all celebrate the start of a new year at the same time. Every culture is unique. That said, we also share certain key similarities. Most people throughout the world understand the value of marking the end of one year and the beginning of another.

This is a time for reflection, hope, and family. Seollal is just one noteworthy example of a holiday that serves this important purpose.


Sources

  1. “Encyclopedia of Korean Seasonal Customs.” The National Folk Museum of Korea, 30 June 2010, Print.
  2. Lunar New Year in South Korea.” Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Institution, 19 February 2015, festival.si.edu/blog/2015/lunar-new-year-in-south-korea/

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