While Japan celebrates the new year (oshōgatsu お正月) on January 1st every year, the Korean New Year or seollal (설날)1 follows the Chinese Lunar Calendar and this year
Seollal falls on January 9th in 2013. Correction: February 9th in 2013 which coincides with Chinese New Year.
In the traditional Chinese/Korean/Japanese Zodiac, 2013 will be the year of the Snake. Since my wife and I are both Snakes, we’re kind of excited about it.2
Like Japanese New Year, Seollal is a 3-day holiday with a lot of tradition, food and family activities. Many Koreans living in Seoul or other major cities will return home to their hometowns or gohyang (고향) bearing lots of gifts and money for relatives. Obviously the city of Seoul itself becomes pretty empty during this time. Travelers be warned.
Seollal has its roots in Confucianism and filial piety. On the first morning of Seollal the children, dressed in hanbok, will bow once to their parents and elders and wish them a happy new year: saehae bok mani padeuseyo (새해 복 많이 받으세요). The parents and grandparents, per Confucian tradition, provide for their children and educate them, so they give the kids money as a gift called sebaetdon (세뱃돈), in small bags containing words of wisdom (deokdam 덕담). Astute readers might have noticed that this is similar to traditions in China and Japan (and Vietnam?) of giving gifts of money to kids for New Years.
Speaking of New Year’s Greetings, a good example of Korean Hanja (Chinese characters) often used around New Years is the phrase 謹賀新年 (geunha-sinnyeon, 근하신년) which I’ve also seen in Japanese signs for the New Year’s. This obviously has Chinese origins as a popular four-character phrase and means poetically “Happy New Year”.
The main dish people enjoy for Seollal is tteokguk (떡국):
Tteokguk is a light broth with rice cakes, Korean seaweed, sometimes mandu (만두 dumplings) and meat. The description sounds pretty similar to Japanese ozōni which my wife makes every year for New Year’s. Technically, according to the Korean age-system, once you’ve eaten your bowl of tteokguk, you’re one year older.
Once these are out of their way, Koreans will relax and play games together, or go visit other relatives and wish them well too.
Also, sometimes families in Korea may spend Seollal in ski resorts and other sea-side resorts too. For example, the city of Donghae in Gangwon Province is a popular destination because it is a good place to see the first rays of the sun of the new year.3
So anyhow, that’s a brief look at Seollal. To Koreans everywhere, I hope you have a wonderful new year. 여러분 새해 복 많이 받으세요
P.S. I posted this a bit early because of Asian timezones (which are a day ahead for me), plus giving enough time for busy readers to catch it. Scheduling blog posts is harder than you think.
P.P.S. This post was made a month too early, as the website I used had the wrong information (all other websites said February 9th, so I should have been more careful). This site has more accurate information about Korean holidays.
1 A person learning Hangul might be confused by the pronunciation because it has a ㄹ followed by a ㄴ, but it’s not pronounced seolnal because there is a sound-shift.
2 If your zodiac sign is the same as the New Year, you automatically get 50,000XP, a +3 icebrand vs. orcs, and an extra +10% chance to hit critical for the rest of the year. I think I might have played too much D&D in my youth. ;p
3 Again, it’s interesting that a similar tradition exists in Japan too (hatsuhi no de 初日の出).