Seollal, Korean Lunar New Year

Seollal, or Korean Lunar New Year is a holiday and celebration which marks the first day of the Korean Lunar Calender. In 2014, Seollal falls on Friday, January 31st - though the celebration is typically three days long, beginning the day before and ending the day after. Traditionally, families gather from all over Korea at the house of their oldest male relative to pay their respects to both ancestors and elders. The centerpiece of the holiday is the ritual of ancestor worship, but there are other activities including eating together, playing games and “Sebae" where children and students bow to their elders and receive small gifts of money.

Ritual: The family traditionally participates in a highly structured ritual of ancestor reverence, referred to as "charye." Charye involves the preparation of food by female relatives and the serving of food to ancestors by male relatives. Both sexes participate in the final step of the ceremony called "eumbok," by eating the food and thereby gaining the ancestors blessing for the coming year. The food prepared for the ancestors differs by region, but rules like the placement of the food are generally similar.

Food: Though the food prepared for the ceremony of charye differs by region, the most common varieties are rice, soup, meat, seafood, liquor, fruit and vegetables. Another very common dish is ddeokguk, or rice cake soup which, though eaten throughout the year, carries special significance on Seollal. Children are especially excited to eat ddeokguk because consuming a bowl marks a person’s Lunar Calendar Birthday. There are scattered reports of youngsters trying to grow more than one year by consuming multiple bowls of ddeokguk, but the jury is still out on whether it does in fact accelerate the aging process! Much like Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) people spend days preparing large quantities of food for Seollal, sometimes resulting in what is called "Myung Cheol Chung Hu Kun" or “Post-Holiday Trauma.” This holiday exhaustion can also be the result of driving long distances, enjoying too much great food, or dealing with the clean-up after all the relatives have left.

Games: When not eating or catching-up on each other’s lives, families often play games like GoStop and Yut Nori. Most families in Korea own a set of “Hwatu” playing cards in much the same way households in the West own 52-card decks. GoStop is an easy to learn game, often involving the betting of smalls sums of money, and is played by 2 or 3-people using “Hwatu” cards. Hwatu means “Battle of Flowers” and refers to the colorful images painted on the 48 cards in the deck. Each deck is broken into 12 sets of 4 similarly painted cards representing the 12 months in the year. Players score points by matching features of the cards in a variety of combinations, and after scoring 3 or 7 points, must decide whether to continue “go"ing or “stop” the game. Players add-up their points, which are modified by the number of times they said “go” and then exchange small sums of money based on their total number of points. Games are short, rarely lasting longer than 15 minutes but are a great way for everyone to unwind and have some fun. GoStop can get loud due to the belief that yelling when playing your cards can improve luck.

Yut Nori is by many accounts a much older game than GoStop, and there is no limit to the number of players. For all intents and purposes, Yut Nori is a race to the finish based on the throwing of four marked sticks instead of dice to determine movement. The object is for each team to get its four “Mals” or horses back to and past the finish line, which is also the starting line. Yut Nori is often played as a "first to 3 wins” game but the rules are malleable and the number of wins, players, and special or “house” rules is really up to the participants.

Seollal is a time for remembering ancestors, visiting family, great food and fun. Just make sure not to end up with a case of Post-Holiday Trauma! Sae Hae Bok Mani Ba Du Seo! (Happy New Year!)


About the author

Brendan Pickering is Asia Society Korea Center's Contributing Writer. 

Photo Credit: ZenKimchi