korean new year, chinese new year

10 Ways Seollal is NOT a Chinese New Year

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I’ll be the first to admit that, until a few years ago, Lunar New Year to me was Chinese New Year. As a Southeast Asian of Chinese descent I never thought of calling the Lunar New Year by any other name, regardless of who was celebrating it or which country it was being celebrated in. And so yes, I was one of many foreigners who kept saying “Happy Chinese New Year” when in fact I should have been calling it Seollal (or the Korean New Year).

Marrying a Korean changed all that though (although my hubby reminding me to call it Seollal instead of CNY helped alot), and over the years I’ve learned some stark differences between the Korean and the Chinese Lunar New Year. While both still retain some basic similarities (like how both follow the Lunar Calendar and that it’s a time for the family to gather), they are different enough to deserve to be called by their own names.

So without further ado, here are ten reasons to call it Seollal, not Chinese New Year:

1. The Korean Lunar New Year is only 3 Days
Officially, the Korean holiday this 2015 is only from February 08 until February 10. In China the number of days will depend on which area you’re in. Some areas will celebrate it for 15 days but in Beijing the official holiday is for only 7 days (from February 08-14).

Korean Calendar Seollal

2. They Well-Wish Differently

I realized that, though we were technically celebrating a similar event, the two cultures greeted each other a bit differently.

Korean Greetings
Source 1, Source 2

“Saehae Bok Mani Badeuseyo” says the Koreans, which in English means “May you receive many blessings this new year.” Blessings here can refer to anything—from one’s health, business, or to even one’s status or condition in life. Basically saying this means you’re hoping that the person you are greeting has a better year.

Chinese, depending on the area, greet differently as well. The general greeting is “xin nian kuai le” (which literally means Happy New Year). In my country though we usually say 恭喜发财!(”Kung Hei Fat Choi” in Cantonese or “Kyong Hee Hwat Tsai” in Hokkien, which means Congratulations (on your accomplishments in 2015) and may (your business) continue to flourish!). I find it interesting how we Chinese really do have this tendency to focus on wealth even in our greetings, while Koreans seem to have a more holistic approach even to a simple thing such as a greeting.

3. On Decorations

To be honest, I don’t really see much “decorating” during Seollal. Probably because the event is colored enough by lovely hanboks and a variety of fruits and food, but other than that there’s not much decorating involved.

Chinese people, on the other hand, are BIG on red during this season. Chinese people consider the color red as lucky and the symbol for happiness (a big contrast from how Koreans perceive the color), which is why everything has got to be red for the Chinese during this season—from their clothes to the money packets to the decorations on their walls. Here are a few examples of Chinese decorations:

Chinese decorations


To the Koreans, however, this whole scene to them probably screams bloody murder. To them red symbolizes blood. Communism. Death. War. This is why you see Koreans dressed in red for big games cheering “Fighting!” for their respective team. For the same reason people avoid writing their names in red. One time I was about to write my student’s name with a red pen and from across the room he screamed, “NOOO!!!!” (Quite comical to me but probably a matter of life and death in my student’s eyes).

via GIPHY

6. Money Packets

So naturally, money packets will be a different color from the red ones Chinese give out. According to my husband it’s usually white, and is given out during the bowing ceremony called “세배(“Sebae”)“. (Interestingly Chinese see white as a symbol for death). This is also the time when married children also give their parents money packets as thank you for raising them. My children, on the other hand, received their 세뱃돈 (“se baet don” or New Year’s Money) in a pouch that looked something like in this picture:

Korean Money Packet
Source

The Chinese give their money packets to the children (known as 红包 “Hong Bao” in Mandarin and “Ang bao” in Hokkien) on CNY‘s eve.

5. The Outfits
Koreans wear hanboks, colorful dresses that, to a foreign eye, might look a little similar to the Japanese kimono.

From Wikimedia.org

Chinese wear red clothes. Some women (and children) will wear a cheongsam as well.

Source

6. The Reason for the Outfits
These hanboks are the Koreans’ version of “formal wear”, which is why many wear it when they meet their elders as a sign of respect. Usually their elders will also wear the same clothes.

Chinese on the other hand will wear red clothes as a sign of celebration and good fortune. Similarly, Chinese people will wear red during other celebrations such as birthdays or anniversaries.

7. Reason behind the Celebration
For this event, Koreans gather not only to spend time with their families but also to pay respects to their elders—living or deceased. A table is set up as a memorial service to the elders and different types of food (again, color-based) is set on the table. I’m not quite sure which colors goes where, but I do know that the reason why fruits can get crazy expensive this season is because they’re in demand for this memorial service.

Korean  Seollal Food
Source

The Chinese on the other hand gather not only to spend time with their families but also to pay their respects to the gods. They usually begin the celebration on Chinese New Year’s Eve, which according to Wikipedia is also when they give out the red money packets (called 红包 or Hongbao). To know more about the gods that the Chinese have to thank click here.

8. The Gathering and Ceremony
One reason why Koreans are so stressed during Seollal is because of all the preparation involved! So Korean moms and their daughters-in-law start preparing for Seollal days before—sometimes at least a week before. Even before the actual day they all have to decide on the food, then purchase them and then prepare them beforehand. When they go to the elder’s house they are also in charge of preparing everything while the men just talk and hang out in the living room. The mothers and daughters-in-law (but mostly daughters-in-law though) are in charge of cleaning up everything as well. There are some families nowadays though who would rather just buy food from outside to bring to the gathering rather than torture themselves with the preparation.

Source

For the Chinese though it’s a bit simpler, depending on where you’re from. For us in the Philippines we simply have lunch at a restaurant on the day itself. In parts of China they make different types of dumplings (usually the girls, men sometimes help as well) and put a coin inside. Whoever gets that coin will have good luck during the year.

9. Making Noise for the Celebration
Koreans have a lot of games to celebrate the new year. The one that we played last time we gathered was called Yunnori, wherein we threw two sticks (which served as dice) and moved around the board.

Chinese on the other hand will celebrate the Lunar New Year with firecrackers and…well, anything freakishly loud. This is because the Chinese used to believe that the noise will drive away the evil spirits.

10. Food
Aside from the food used for the memorial service, Koreans will also eat Rice cake soup (Tteokguk) and Korean Pancake (Jeon) during the new year.

chinese new year philippines
Learn how Chinese-Filipinos celebrate Chinese New Year in the Philippines here!

Chinese on the other hand, depending on the location, will eat different types of food based on the texture and even homonyms of the food. In the Philippines for example we eat “tikoy” (甜粿) which sounds like “prosperous year”. The northern part of China will usually celebrate by eating dumplings while the southern part will celebrate with noodles (a symbol of long life because of the long noodles, which we’re not allowed to cut, by the way!)

Malaysians have a dish called “Yusheng” which is tossed raw fish salad. Everyone picks up their chopsticks and tosses it altogether on one giant plate and then eat it together. This will help give us luck and prosperity throughout the year.

Source

These are just some of the differences I’m familiar with. If there’s any other differences that you might know, please let me know in the comments section below so that I may add it. 🙂

So whichever country you’re in, a happy Lunar New Year from my family to yours. 🙂

Korean Greetings
Source 1, Source 2

While browsing through the web for pictures, I found another blog that differentiates these two Lunar New Years. Click here to visit that site.

Hope you liked it! How did you celebrate your Lunar New Year?

20 comments

  1. Lovely post!
    Speaking as a Eurasian (and I hope this doesn’t come out the wrong way), it’s very refreshing to be able to see the story of an Asian multicultural TCK family.

  2. lovely post Jackie! I really miss the lovely decorations they put up in China 🙁 I had my friend send me new monkey decorations for my door and windows! You’re absolutely right: they’re actually both the same holiday but the two countries celebrate it completely differently!!! great post! 恭喜发财!

    1. Thanks Linda! I miss them, too! Wow you should post those on your blog when you get them, I’d love to see what those look like haha. 恭喜发财 to you and your hubby as well! Thanks for visiting!

  3. Good read Jackie ^^
    Thanks for sharing this.
    I’d like to add something to no. 7 if u dont mind. The order of the food they set for the ancestral rites (제사- jesa) is the order the food is consumed by the ancestors or their dearly departed.
    There will be a picture or tablets with the ancestor names at the head of the table. Closest to it will be the rice, sikhye, soup and utensils. The next row are the meats, then veggies, then fish, then sweets n fruits for dessert. They pour wine too while doing the ancestral rites ^^

    1. That’s amazing Dee, I didn’t know about those! You see, we’re Christians so my family doesn’t perform the actual rites anymore. Thank you for sharing this with us! 😀

      1. Well, it is actually more of a tradition rather than a religious practice, Im told… But i know that Christian families say it’s their religion that prohibits them from doing this practice any longer.

        1. Exactly what my mil says. But I can imagine that because in the Philippines din some Christians don’t want to do the traditional Chinese way because of religion. Sometimes the line between tradition and culture can get quite thin. 🙂

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