“seollal” – Korea’s lunar new year celebration

February 17, 18 and 19 are this year’s lunar new year holiday. The actual “seol-nal” (romanization but pronounced as “seol-lal”) is February 18 but the eve and the day after the celebration are non-working days to give time for the people to go to their hometown and back. Lunar new year is one of the two biggest holidays here. The other one is “Chu-seok” or Thanksgiving day, which is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eighth month (8.15) of the lunar calendar. As these holidays are based on the lunar calendar, the dates on the gregorian calendar changes every year.

My husband’s hometown is in Jecheon, a two-hour drive from the capital, but we celebrated the holiday for the second time here in Seoul. Two years ago, we had to endure the bumper-to-bumper traffic prevalent during this season. It is more practical for the family to stay in the city rather than to go to their hometown for the holiday. Now, it is only his parents who have to travel for the celebration.

It is said that most Korean women hate the holidays, and as a daughter-in-law I can understand why. I just don’t lose sleep over it like others do. After all, it is not everyday that we have this kind of celebration. My husband is the third son so whatever task I have to do is really miniscule compared to the first daughter-in-law’s. I don’t have to cook like my other sisters-in-law, since I am a foreigner and they thought I’m not used to cooking Korean foods.

On the first day of the celebration, everybody gathers at my eldest brother-in-law’s house. That’s where we do all the food preparation for next morning’s offering for the ancestors. For the new year, we had to make “mandu” or Korean dumplings, “jeon” or panfried food, “tteok” or rice cakes and “banchan” or side dishes. We started work after breakfast, at around 9 o’clock in the morning and ended at almost 8 o’clock in the evening. In most Korean families, men just sit around doing nothing. In my husband’s family, the men also help with the preparation. The men in the family are the ones who make the “mandu” and wash dishes after the meals.

pict4327-medium.JPGOn new year’s day, the adults wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning to prepare the table for the ancestral rites (called “cha-rye”). For this, we have to prepare food to be offered and place them properly and attractively on wooden containers (“je-gi”). Every food group has to be represented. There should be food taken from the land as well as the sea. It usually takes about two hours to prepare everything (it’s always a joke trying to arrange the dates and chestnuts on the jegi as they always fall!). Then everybody wears a “hanbok” (traditional korean clothes) before the main “ceremony”. Only the men are allowed to do the offering for the ancestors, but the women in my family also pay respects by bowing (called “jeol”).

pict4322-medium.JPGWhat goes on in the “ceremony”? The men of the family offer the food to the ancestors by placing the spoons in the rice. They will also fill the wooden cups with wine (“sul”) and place them on the stand. After the offering, a white paper with the ancestors’ names written on it is burned. The descendants then bow (men first then the women) and afterwards drink the wine and eat the food on the altar.

pict4348-medium.JPGAfter the ceremony, it is time for the much awaited part of every “seolnal” celebration. This is when the juniors bow to the seniors and receive their new year’s money, called “sebe ton”. This equates to the Philippine tradition of going to our “ninong” (godfather) and “ninang” (godmother) on Christmas day for our “aginaldo” (christmas gift).

pict4330-medium.JPGBy the time every “seol-nal” activity has finished, it is already 9 AM. It’s time for breakfast, which is what I’ve been waiting for the whole time since waking up at 6 AM. The breakfast table would be filled with all the dishes served on the altar, which includes chicken, fish, beef, veggies, rice cakes and “mandu guk” (dumpling soup).

If we were in the province, we would have visited the tombs of the ancestors in the mountains. Now that we celebrate in Seoul, we visit before or after “seol-nal” instead.

10 comments

  1. hi ! thanks for writing this!! very very interesting.. u know i like to read and if i can, experience foreign food and customs as well..

  2. very interesting! did you also wear a hanbok? hmm and na-observe ko lang (and i guess it represents the society) yung female subordination sa preparation and rites…

  3. ^^ my pleasure…

    @victoria – yup, i wore a hanbok… and i looked like a tent! korea is a highly patriarchial society (no thanks to confucianism)… but it doesn’t really mean that women are repressed here (well, kinda)…

  4. Hi! I don’t know how I came upon your blogs but I just think it’s so cool and interesting how youre filipina and you know SO MUCH about our korean culture! I’m actualy a second generation korean (19 yrs old) living in California and I have a filipino boyfriend who I’ve been dating for 2 years. it just sucks because my parents don’t approve of him simply becuase he’s not korean. this blog just reminded me of him cuz a few days ago was my grandpa’s death anniversary, jae sah, (i’m sure you know about this) and he came over and he was helping my mom out in the kitchen and stuff like you. I dont know.. hopefully, my parents will come to their senses and accept who i love.

  5. after watching few of korean drama… i have this feeling that i wanted to go there in Korea and experience korean customs and tradition… im asking my parents how i could go there… and i they will allow me to study in Korea… I love Chinese people when i was in college.. You bet sometimes when i feel so lonely i always go at Binondo or Chinatown and just walk there…kung san man ako dalhin ng paa ko.. and i couldnt stop smiling when i saw a group of chinese people and their language.. i really like to learn how to speak mandarin or whatever but now im so much curious about korean culture…everytime im online im looking for anything about korean…that’s why im here on your website… i really wanted to go there.. is it really expensive? how about the cost of living? and studyong there?? haaaayy…. i wish i could go there… hope you give me some advice too…. do you have pictures of places in korea???
    here’s my contact kalay_stillpretty12@yahoo.com
    thanks!

  6. @kalay >> why not come here as a korean language student? there are some universities in the provinces offering scholarships to those who want to learn the language… i know someone who’s here on such scholarship, pinay siya and she’s learning the language and experiencing life here for free… i’ll ask her how she got the scholarship and then i’ll post it later…

  7. I am researching for a program I will present on Korean Wedding ritual and date setting etc……My son (American) and daughter in law, from Busan, SK were married in Sept 07. I attended ,wearing hanbok and
    looked like a baloon! I will wear it for my presentation however.
    Having trouble finding details for symbolism for the ducks. Also the
    rice cakes which were presented to us at the bride’s home by her mother and aunts (her father died in accident when she was a child)
    The cakes looked beautiful but had no taste….we were kind and ate
    some, smiling. Also, does anyone know about traditions regarding
    young widows with small children and remarriage?………I guess there are some taboos?
    thanks for any info!!

  8. Very fascinating! I’ve got a chance to visit Korea in one of their most highlighted festivals. It’s more of a Chinese tradition I think, since it’s called Chinese New Year for the others, but in any rate Koreans were able to blend in their own unique culture with it.

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