Today is 12th of February 2021; we aren’t even half the year, why the happy new year wish again? I thought it was already done on 1st of January. Some will argue that the year is still “young” and therefore the wish is valid. All the same from South Korea, we once again wish you a happy new year! It is Seollal…
Seollal generally refers to Eumnyeok Seollal (Hangul: 음력 설랄; Hanja: 陰曆설날, lit. "lunar new year"), also known as Gujeong (구정; 舊正). It is the first day of the Korean calendar. Originating from the Chinese Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, It is one of the most important traditional Korean holidays. The celebration usually lasts three days: the day before Korean New Year, Korean New Year itself and the day after Korean New Year. In this year the first day of the Korean New Year being on the 12th of February, therefore the Seollal holidays extend from 11th February to 13th February.
Korean New Year generally occurs in January or February on the second new moon after the winter solstice, unless there is an intercalary eleventh or twelfth month in the lead-up to the New Year. In such a case, the New Year falls on the third new moon after the solstice.
The celebrations of Lunar New Year occur also in other parts of Asia, namely:
- Chinese New Year (Spring Festival)
- Japanese New Year (Shōgatsu)
- Mongolian New Year (Tsagaan Sar)
- Tibetan New Year (Losar)
- Vietnamese New Year (Tết - Spring Festival
So, how do the Koreans celebrate Seollal? There are many interesting rituals and I will talk about some of them and the reasons behind each of them.
Korean New Year is typically a family holiday. The three-day holiday sees many returning to their hometowns to visit their parents and other relatives, where they observe various customs.
This is the ancestral worship ceremony. Koreans believe that their ancestors return to enjoy the ritual food prepared for them on Seollal. So, they pay tribute to their ancestors by performing a ritual called “charye” with their family members. Charye is a memorial service that prays for the peace and good health of the ancestors. The charye table is set with a variety of food which must have nice shapes and colours and must be fresh. People in Seoul and Gyeonggi-do Province usually prepare the food according to the rules set out in the book entitled ‘Zhu Xi’s Family Rituals’, for example, having jujubes, chestnuts, pears and dried persimmons placed from left to right, and placing fish at the table’s east with their heads facing east and meat at the table’s west. Ingredients that have strong scents such as green onions or garlic should not be used as they may ward off the ancestors. Nowadays people who are not familiar with these rules can use a smartphone application called Jesa Whiz which can tell users where to put the different dishes on the charye table.
The most important ritual food is tteokguk (떡국 – rice cake soup) and there are at least a dozen other dishes including fish, galbijjim (갈비찜 – braised short ribs), japchae (잡채 – sweet potato noodles with meat and vegetables), jeon (전 – Korean pancakes containing chopped vegetables), hangwa (한과 – Korean traditional cookies), fruits and other dishes made of various kinds of vegetables, meat and fish. Preparing the ritual food takes a lot of time and efforts and nowadays some people may use the holiday catering services. A Korean family is expected to spend around US$170 for charye.
During charye, family members make two full bows on their knees and then a bow while half-standing and offer prayers to their ancestors. After charye is performed, the family members share the ritual food together, hoping that the virtues of their ancestors will be passed onto themselves.
Korean Traditional Dress ‘Hanbok’
Many Koreans dress up in colourful traditional Korean clothing called Hanbok (한복). Hanbok is usually worn for special occasions such as weddings, Korean New Year, child's first birthday, etc. On Seollal morning, Koreans put on their new Hanbok with bright and pretty colours to symbolize hopes for a bright future and go to their elders’ homes to celebrate this festival together. However, with modernization and evolving mores in the culture, more people tend to prefer westernized, modern clothing to the Hanbok.
2021 Year of the White Ox
Koreans follow a zodiac similar to the Chinese zodiac. Twelve animals represent the 12 years in sequential order with the rat/mouse representing the first year. Buddha is believed to have invited animals from all over the world to visit, to which only 12 visited. In return, he honoured them by naming the years in the order that they arrived. Koreans believe that specific zodiac animals (in the order of rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep/goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig) bring specific resources and qualities. For example, the year 2014 was the year of the horse, and it was considered a good year in the money and career aspect of life. It is said that a person born in a specific zodiacal year will carry that zodiac animal's characteristics. As a result, Koreans plan their year and activities around it to have a good, prosperous year. Parents may have even planned the birth year of their child, so the child may have a specific characteristic. It is fair to say that the Korean zodiac is an important part of Korea's culture.
2021 is the Year of the Ox, according to the Chinese 12-year zodiac cycle. This year being the ox, it is actually specified to be the year of the ‘white ox’. Oxen have been especially valued and regarded as prized possessions in agrarian societies like China and Korea.
In Asian countries, oxen have long been viewed as a symbol of prosperity because of their strong work ethic and sincerity. Traditionally in Korea, oxen, or cattle in a larger sense, have long been regarded as members of the family and often lived under the same roof. They were fundamental to farming culture.
To illustrate the impact of oxen on the lives of Koreans, the National Folk Museum of Korea in central Seoul organized a special exhibition titled "Oxen In Our Daily Lives." The exhibit is the museum's annual project to organize an exhibit at this time of the year focused on each zodiac animal. This year's exhibition runs until March 1.
As the museum is currently closed due to the pandemic, it decided to kick-start the online viewing of the exhibit from Dec. 29. The exhibit is divided into two main sections.
The first section introduces oxen as "a symbol of reliability and comfort." For example, there's a painting depicting a shepherd boy riding on an ox, "creating an atmosphere of relaxation and freedom from the mundane world, while an ox in literary works evokes nostalgia for a writer's rural birthplace," said Kim Hee-jae, curator of the exhibit.
"An ox in Buddhist painting epitomizes the true human nature that people are constantly seeking," Kim added. "Moreover, in geomancy, land taking the shape of a reclining ox or an ox belly is considered a propitious site that will bring good luck."
The second section showcases oxen as "the animals of self-sacrifice." "They were the workforce harnessed for ploughing paddies and fields, provided transportation and even offered a means of coming up with emergency money," said Kim. "Thus, cattle were not simply livestock but also precious creatures."
Young visitors to the exhibit will be amazed to see the old farming tools used along with cattle exhibited in this section, like a 20th-century yoke, a packsaddle, as well as a cattle bell. Also on display are black-and-white photographs of farmers working on their farms with their cattle in what is today's luxury district of Apgujeong-dong in southern Seoul. There are also old medical books that people read when their oxen got sick as well as talismans to wish for the well-being of their oxen, illustrating that the animals were indeed equivalent to the family's capital. This section of the exhibition also delves into how the roles of the animal have expanded due to the development of the livestock industry as well as mechanization of agriculture. "People today eat beef on happy occasions, drink milk every day and apply cow milk lotion to their bodies and wear cowhide shoes," said Kim. "As the old saying goes, 'There is nothing to be thrown away from an ox except its yawn.'" If you want to know which zodiac animal you belong to, you can contact me personally for a private lesson about that. Of course some fee will be required, get ready to send it to padre Gianpaolo, my regional administrator! I was born in the Year of the rabbit. In which year was I born? Umm…Top Secret!
Rituals on Seollal’s Eve
There is a Korean belief that ghosts come to the human world to steal shoes on the eve of Seollal. The ghosts take the shoes that fit them, bestowing bad luck on the shoe owners for the entire year. So, people hide their shoes in safe places to prevent them from being stolen by the ghosts on Seollal’s eve.
First thing to do on Seollal morning
According to the Korean tradition, in the morning of Seollal, people buy bokjori (복조리 – bamboo strainer used for washing rice before cooking) and hang it high on a wall in the house. This is to bring good luck and fortune. It is believed that the earlier one buys the bokjori, the larger fortune it will bring.
Another custom observed is the lighting of a "moon house" built from burnable firewood and branches. This symbolizes the warding off of bad/evil spirits for the New Year. Many also choose to add wishes they want to come true in the next year to the moon house. In the modern days, this aspect is not strictly observed by many.
At least one week before Seollal, the Koreans are busy shopping to buy Seollal gifts for their family members and friends. In the gift-giving Koreans may give Spam (luncheon meat) gift sets and cash as gifts for Seollal to their family members and friends. Other popular gifts for Seollal may include meat, fish, fruit, ginseng, honey, health products, massage chairs, toiletries (e.g., shampoo, soap, toothpaste), dried fish and hangwa (한과 – traditional Korean cookies). Alternatively, cash can also be a good gift for Koreans.
In our 3 Consolata missionaries communities here in South Korea, during this occasion we also receive many gifts from the catholic faithful, our friends and benefactors. They majorly offer us meat, fruits as well as mass intentions. We thank the Almighty God for this great generosity manifested towards us.
Sebae (세배, 歲拜, new year’s bow) is a ritual of filial piety that is traditionally observed on Seollal. Dressed in traditional clothing, people wish their elders (grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles) a happy new year by performing one deep traditional bow (rites with more than one bow involved are usually for the deceased) and the words saehae bok mani badeuseyo (Hangul: 새해 복 많이 받으세요), or "Please receive a lot of good fortune for the New Year". Elders typically reward this gesture by giving young family members new year's money (in new bank note), or "pocket money" called Sebaet Don (세뱃 돈). After receipt, the sebaedon is usually put into bokjumeoni (복주머니 – fortune pouch). Bokjumeoni is a drawstring silk or cotton pouch embroidered with various auspicious symbols that are believed to bring fortune and can be a round pouch or a pouch with ears.
The children are also offered words of wisdom or blessings for good health and fortune referred to as dŏkdam (덕담). Historically, parents gave out rice cakes (ddeok) and fruit to their children but in the modern times, they offer money. In this case all the elders that will receive the sebae have got to prepare the sebaet don.
Tteokguk (떡국 – rice cake soup)
Tteokguk is the traditional Seollal food which represents piety, dignity and the new year. It is a traditional soup made of thinly sliced white tteok (떡 – rice cake), beef, egg and vegetables. Koreans eat tteokguk with family members in the morning of Seollal. It is believed that one gets one year older by eating a bowl of tteokguk. The Koreans like to ask each other how many bowls of tteokguk they have eaten and joke about the number of years that they will get old. So, although tteokguk is tasty, don’t eat more than one bowl; otherwise you will get old very quickly!
Jeon, sometimes called buchimgae (부침개), is a traditional Korean dish eaten especially on the Korean New Year's Day. A savoury Korean pancake containing chopped vegetables, one would expect it to be sliced with a knife. However, the jeon is ripped apart with chopsticks in the belief of making it taste better.
The most important ritual food is tteokguk (떡국 – rice cake soup) however, there are at least a dozen other dishes including fish, galbijjim (갈비찜 – braised short ribs), japchae (잡채 – sweet potato noodles with meat and vegetables), hangwa (한과 – Korean traditional cookies), fruits and other dishes made of various kinds of vegetables, meat and fish. Preparing the ritual food takes a lot of time and efforts and nowadays some people may use the holiday catering services.
For the remainder of the day, Koreans play traditional folk games and share stories with their family members. Popular games played on Seollal include yutnori (윷놀이 – board game involving throwing 4 wooden sticks), jegichagi (제기차기 – a game involving kicking a badminton shuttlecock-like object, similar to hacky-sack), tuho (투호 – arrow pitching), Go-stop (고스톱 – card game often involving betting small sums of money played by 2 or 3 people) and yeonnaligi (연날리기–kite-flying). Family members may also go to see a movie or watch the TV Seollal specials together. In South Korea, there is a thumb-sized app and device called Chromecast which allows people to play different TV channels on a single screen, thus allowing family members to watch the TV together even though they may want to watch different TV programmes.
Cultural activities to be held during the Seollal holiday period
During the Seollal holiday period, tourist spots like folk villages and royal palaces hold special events relating to the rituals of Seollal like performing sebae, eating tteokguk and playing traditional folk games to celebrate Seollal. This applies to both locals and foreigners. Most of these activities are free of charge. The tourist information centre located at the Korea Tourism Organization’s Seoul Office in Jung-gu will hold free cultural activities like taking photos in Hanbok, folding origami bokjumeoni and playing traditional folk games.
How is Seollal celebrated by Catholics?
As we have seen above, during Seollal a family may conduct formal family rites ("charye"), spend three days in observation of New Year, or wear traditional clothing. All are wonderful aspects of Seollal. Many families do keep family customs, rituals, and celebrations with the spirit of recalling and reviving family. The Catholic Church has created a rite for such occasions within the Eucharistic celebration. This is some good form of inculturation!
The Eucharistic celebration during Seollal is dedicated in prayer for the ancestors, or those who have gone before us, with the hope of resurrection. Therefore the liturgy is proper for the dead with specific readings, prayers and preface. For this matter, some Catholics never perform the family rituals but instead join in the Eucharistic celebration which also carries the same meaning of the Seollal celebration.
The Catholic faithfuls prepare mass intentions for their departed family members. Their names are well written and stuck on some kind of board and put in front of the altar (As illustrated in the photo). In front of this names incense is also put. The incense is used during the offertory. Each faithful (including the main celebrant and other priests) burns some incense in honour of the ancestors in prayer.
After mass, the faithful both old and young may do Sebae to the parish priest. He in return prepares and gives the sebaet don.
In general, the Seollal Eucharistic celebration is marked by a mood of thanksgiving, just like the new year of the Gregorian calendar. As the new year begins, in this first day, the faithful are reminded that our life on earth is short, therefore should always be alert to receive the Lord with an open heart when He knocks at their doors. This is a message from the Gospel of the day. Apart from praying for the faithful departed, the faithful also pray for God’s blessing throughout the new year.
Due to Covid-19…
Given the consecutive public holiday period, usually many people go back to their hometown for Seollal and traffic during this period is very congested. However, in 2021, due to Covid-19, the government has asked the people to avoid gatherings and stay at home. It has imposed a ban on social gatherings of 5 or more which applies even for family members unless they are living in the same house. So, there are some changes in the manner in which some rituals are performed.
In this year, due to the social distancing measures banning social gatherings of 5 or more, people may not be able to meet with their family members. So, there is a new trend in Seollal gifts – people may choose to send take-out meals offered at the hotels and restaurants to their family members to share a sense of comfort that they are having the same meal.
Apart from take-out meals, hotels and restaurants are also offering take-out charye table consisting of beef short ribs, a plate full of stir-fried noodles, and pancakes made of vegetables, meat and fish – all freshly made by the hotel or restaurant kitchen. People may just add a bowl of Tteokguk (rice cake soup) and some fruits to make a full charye table. This costs around US$150 though this may vary among hotels and restaurants. With the help of these take-out charye tables, people can easily set up a full charye table even without the help of other family members who may not be able to come.
Due to the social gathering restriction, sebae goes online and this is done by way of virtual meetings or pre-recorded greetings. Sebaet don is also sent online.
In this COVID-19 era and war, Koreans can't properly meet and embrace, or share a meal. They can meet, online or by phone. That's consoling. Families have suffered due to the inability to congregate and share times good and bad.
Happy Lunar New Year!!
새해 복 많이 받으십시오.