Have you ever celebrated the New Year the Korean way? If not, then we’re in the same boat. I’ve done it once but it was more as an outsider looking in than someone who was really participating in this yearly ritual. I’ve heard the stories though—that it can get so stressful that some Korean mothers actually dislike this time of the year for all the tasks they have to do. Fortunately, my friend Dee has kindly volunteered to share her story and tell us how Koreans celebrate this busy but momentous occasion.
Without further ado, let’s read on to learn more about how Koreans celebrate one of the most important celebrations in the Korean calendar, the Korean New Year aka Seollal:
Korean Lunar New Year is a three-day celebration that marks the start of new lunar year. It is one of the two biggest holidays in Korea, the other one being Chuseok. People from all over Korea make it a point to be with their families on this very special occasion. While most recently there is an increase in the number of families who prefer to celebrate the long holidays in modern ways, the majority of Koreans will still celebrate the traditional way.
Our celebration begins by making the trip to my in-laws’ house. Most people prefer to make a very early trip or even go a day earlier especially if they are coming from Seoul and have a long way to go. Fortunately, my in-laws’ house is in Seoul so the trip only took us an hour and a half.
Before the big day, it is customary to prepare presents for our relatives. My husband and I typically shop for gift sets at the big supermarkets and they will deliver it free of charge wherever you want it. This shopping has to take place a week before New Year because supermarkets could get backed up with their deliveries. The ones we carry with us are small gifts we like to give our relatives as a token of affection or in Korean we say “jae ma-eum” (제 마음). Along with our gifties are our 3-day bags and some last minute foods we decided to bring.
We arrive at my in-laws’ and we’re greeted at the door by family members already busy with the first task of the day: food preparation. After the brief greetings and chitchats I then change into my battle gear- comfy sweats and an apron. My brother-in-law’s wife always does the shopping for all of our family holidays, gatherings, and celebrations so I’m very grateful for her! Me? I just follow orders ^^.
We always start with wrapping the dumplings. My mother-in-law makes very good kimchi dumplings. She prepares the filling all on her own the day before and we wrap them on the first day. This is actually a fun thing for me. These yummy babies will be our lunch for the day. Afterwards, we do the frying. Vegetable, fish, and meat fritters or jeon (전) are staple of big Korean holidays. This takes hours and hours of frying so apartment hallways typically reek of these fried foods’ smell. After the frying we prepare the meats in their marinades. The famous meat dishes are L.A. galbi (beef short ribs for broiling) and galbi jjim (beef short ribs stew). In case you are wondering about the name…no. L.A. galbi isn’t Los-Angeles-related barbecue. It is just a name. The jeons are fried, dumplings wrapped, meats marinated, and our tummies filled with fried foods. It has been a very long day but the big day is tomorrow so we turn in at ten.
D. Day. Aka The Morning Rush.
We get up at 7 and we fire up the kitchen again to cook the rice-cake soup (ddeok-gug). It may sound weird but it’s not a soup from cakes. Imagine a dumpling soup with bits of beef and slices of sticky rice. This is what rice-cake soup is. While the soup is boiling we prepare all the other foods that will be used for today’s ancestral rites (jesa). The Korean ancestral rite is a short ceremony of food offering to relatives who have passed away. There is a certain way to conduct this. A table is filled with foods that vary from rice, soup, vegetable and meat side dishes to fruits. The table is set accordingly. At the head is a picture or a wooden slab of the names of the family ancestors and the rice directly in front of it and the soup and utensils. Now the food is arranged according to the way it is consumed. The meat and fish are on the second row, the vegetables on the third, and the fruits the farthest. The foods are plated nicely following a towering pattern. The higher, the better. Larger foods like fruits are served in odd numbers in quantity.
The Ancestral rites.
This is the highlight of the day. We dress in our best clothes (be it our beautiful hanboks, dresses or suits. We have to look our best when we present ourselves in front of our ancestors. We wear socks to cover our feet as well. This year is my daughter’s first time to wear her first hanbok. The rest of us just wore clothes we would wear to Church. With a fully set table, it begins with the men pouring wine for my late father-in-law. The small cup is filled with soju and swirled clockwise several times around lit incense. Next, the chopsticks are moved to a plate of certain food as if feeding someone. Then, the men do two deep bows and a half bow. This pattern is repeated until all the men have bowed and one representative for the ladies of the family pours the wine. Afterwards the ladies bow all together.
The New Year’s Bow or Sebae is performed by the children to their parents and the elderly. They do only one deep bow and a half bow. Then an envelope with money is handed to the kids together with words of wisdom or well wishes. The adults on the other hand give the gift money to their parents as appreciation for raising them well.
The Feast After the jesa and sebae we can finally enjoy a feast of a breakfast. We don’t actually eat everything we set on the table. We eat more than usual but those leftovers will be divided among the families to be taken home and eaten for several days which I don’t look forward to. A sumptuous meal accompanied with funny stories after a day and a half of hard work is a good reward indeed. Then, follows my favorite part of the day – the nap.
Most establishments are closed on this day so we cannot go out for entertainment. We usually play board games, and card games. The kids love the Korean card game “go-stop”. Traditional activities include flying a kite and a board game called yutnori (윷놀이).
The Last Day.
We sleep in and have fruits for breakfast. We pack our stuff and the foods that are left from the day before are wrapped to be taken to our respective homes. More businesses are open on this day so we usually eat out for lunch. This year we decided to go to a traditional Korean village. After a good amount of time we said our goodbyes and headed home. As exhausting as this holiday is, it is about spending time with family. And if your family is as nice as mine, you end up having lots of fun afterall.
I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did! If you have any more questions about Korean traditions (or, better yet, if there’s something you’d like to share!) please let me know in the comments section below.
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