Seolnal: Korean New Year 설날

새해복많이받으세요! ~ Happy Korean New Year! This is coming in late as we were partaking in festivities, both with family and friends. In Korea, they celebrate two New Years, one by the Solar calendar (January 1st- Western style) and their own, planned out by the Lunar calendar which follows the phases of the moon. Each year, it falls on a different date and is celebrated over three days. This year it fell on a Wednesday, so people got a wonderful mini holiday time of five days.

The first day of the holiday is spent getting to the husband’s family’s home and preparing the food for the New Years Day rituals. Traditionally, once a woman was married to a Korean man, she then “belonged” to his family and had to serve them dutifully. If she married the eldest son, then her role was to prepare all the food (three days worth and usually by herself) for the rituals and then be judged on the quantity and quality of what she’d made and how she’d presented it.  My lovely and strong mother in law had to prepare this twice a year for 14 people and still had to keep a smile on her face and be patient. Whilst it is a time for families to gather, it is an incredibly laborious and stressful time for the women, yet I’ve read this is changing ever so slowly.  I had a group discussion three years ago with my Korean girl friends and they all said they didn’t want to marry because they had watched their mums work hard while the men sat around drinking, playing cards and watching TV. I thank my lucky stars that Bobby isn’t the eldest son and that I wasn’t born in Korea.

The second day of the holiday is the actual New Years Day and is spent performing traditional ceremonies to ancestors and elder family members. Koreans dress in new clothes or 한복 Hankboks (traditional dress made from beautiful silks ranging in different colours) and prepare the ceremonial table to feed their ancestors. The Soul of Seoul beat me to it and has an awesome piece on how the table is set up during the ancestral rituals. Basically, the table is set with rows of different foods set out in colour groups. Each province has their own style, but the most famous/commonly used is Hong(red) -Dong(East) -Baek(white) -So(West) 홍동백서 (red to the East, white to the West). The foods on the table include, fruits, nuts, cookies, meat, chicken, fish, jeon, beef radish soup and rice. Once the table is set, incense is lit and the eldest son pours Chong Ju (rice wine) followed by the second brother and on down the line of men.  All family members then bow and talk silently with their ancestors (thank you for coming; eat a lot; thank you for looking after us etc.). The table is then left for ten to twenty minutes so the ancestors can eat while the family talk. Everyone then stands and walks to the front door, opening it, bowing and letting the spirits leave in peace after a wonderful feast. The first time I experienced this, I was mind blown. It’s such a beautiful ceremony and gave me the shivers.

So once the spirits have left, the family sits down and shares the meal. Children then bow to their elders and wish them a happy new year and receive gifts (usually money) and blessings from them.

Bobby Quote: It hasn’t always been money gifts, I don’t know why now it’s become money gifts, it used to be book certificates and things like that, but now it’s money gifts.

The above ceremonies and eating combined take around three hours and then leftovers are packed up and the family go to the tombstones of the ancestors to pray, bow and offer food again. For the men and children, upon returning home, the day is now done and they have time to play. Back to the kitchen for the wives to clean all the dishes and prepare more food.

The third day of the holiday is for returning home. With a population of more than forty-nine and a half million the days either side are necessary; transport (plane, train, bus) is fully booked out months in advance and the motorways are crammed for hours for those that braved driving.

CEREMONIES PERFORMED FOR SEOLNAL: han bok 한복 – dress in hanbok/new clothes (me in my mother in law’s hanbok- it’s 35 years old!)


Jesa Sang 제사 – prepare the table for the ancestors, bow, pray and let them eat, then eat. Picture of table with ancestors photo

Sae Bae 세배 – children bow to elders and parents and receive blessings and gifts. Picture of children bowing

Seong Myo 성묘 – ceremony at tombstone, bow and feed spirits. Picture of ceremony at tomb


Rice cake soup – Recipe to follow in the next few days – this  soup is made especially for new year. The rice cakes are prepared in long rolls (longevity of life) and then sliced in diagonal circles (coins for your wealth) and once consumed, ages you a year. People joke that they won’t eat it because they want to stay young and beautiful forever. While dishes vary from household to household during Seolnal, rice cake soup is a feature in every Korean home for this special time of year.

seolnal soup

Alongside the soup we had bulgolgi (sweet braised beef with vegetables), fried fish, jeon (battered and fried vegetables and meats), japchae (vegetables mixed with sweet potato glass noodles) and many banchan (side dishes-fermented vegetables and fruits in a yoghurt dressing with pine nuts). The smells wafting out of the different houses in the cold morning air had me salivating.

Two New Years and birthdays in one year, these people know how to celebrate!

From our family to yours, may health, wealth and happiness envelop you this year.

Happy Korean New Year – Chan and Bob


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