Happy Seollal!

Celebrating Lunar New Year with Korean Traditions

ILLUSTRATION: Jill Baccay / The Peak

By: Gem Yelin Lee, Copy Editor

It’s January 21, and I come home to my mother on her eighth consecutive hour in the kitchen, preparing ingredients and cooking time-consuming dishes. The apartment is cold from windows being left open to air out the cooking smells, and the burners are hot from a tireless onslaught of 전 (jeon) being made in heaping batches. My father is somewhere simultaneously helping tidy the apartment and obsessively rummaging through old bins, looking for Korean folk games. This is a scene that only happens once a year: during 설날 or Seollal, the Korean celebration of Lunar New Year.

Lunar New Year is a momentous cultural holiday celebrated by several Asian countries; each country has their own name for it and unique traditions, too. The date changes every year as it follows the lunar or lunisolar calendar, and the twelve zodiac animals are cycled through. This year, the day landed on January 22, and we celebrated the beginning of the Year of the Rabbit: a year of peace and good fortune

In South Korea, Lunar New Year is called Seollal (better phonetically spelled as seol-nal) a national holiday lasting four days. It is “one of the most important traditional holidays of the year,” where many businesses close up shop to join others in returning to their hometowns for a family-oriented celebration. Dressed in traditional clothes, 한복 (hanbok), you honour your late ancestors with 차례 (charye), deep bow to your elders with 세배 (sebae), and play traditional games like 윳놀이 (yut-nori) to bond with your family. The whole event is packaged in a bucketload of delicious, traditional foods and drinks which take at least a full day and many helping hands to prepare. 

It had been almost a decade since my family had properly and intentionally celebrated Seollal with its traditions. Throughout my childhood, we would celebrate from morning till 3:00 a.m. the next day by inviting our family friends over to our home. It would be the most fun any of us had since the previous year we met, and the year before that. However, as we moved more times than I could count on my hands, and endured poverty, health crises, and isolation, somewhere along the way we let each Seollal pass by with just the simple holiday greeting. “새해 복 많이 받으세요 (Sehaebok-manibadusaeyeo),” I would say to my parents while dashing out the door for work or school, “May you receive many blessings/lots of luck this year.” 

This year, I proposed we celebrate Seollal again. I used the excuse of wanting to invite my partner and share this cultural experience with them, but even more than that, I wanted to experience the joyous, family-oriented holiday again. Even though we all live together in a two-bedroom apartment, we hardly see each other or spend meaningful time together as a family. But this year, we all marked it on our calendars and made sure we were free — it was a smashing success. Here are some of the traditional elements that make celebrating Seollal so special:

차례 (Charye)

Charye is “a memorial service for one’s ancestors,” where a ritual table is set with special dishes, ancestral tablets, and incense. Your family members would gather at your family shrine or one of your relative’s homes and all take part in the set-up of the ritual table. You then deep bow to your ancestors, who are believed to be present at the time the ritual table is complete, and then eat the food you prepared with your family members. The service is held predominantly on Seollal and Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving), but resembles a more common practice called Gijesa: “the annual memorial service held on the date of an ancestor’s death.” Nowadays, Gijesa is usually prepared for a person you were close to who has passed away and not necessarily just your ancestors, but for very close friends and partners, too. Charye is more of a general memorial service to your late ancestors, rather than a specific individual. Both traditions are ways to honour and show gratitude to your late ancestors. My family hasn’t taken part in charye as we aren’t in Korea with our extended family, but we did hold Gijesa for my grandfather for several years. My father once explained to me that the foods laid out are offered to the ancestor to eat, and therefore blessed with their love and presence when we finish our greetings and eat the food ourselves. This importance placed on sharing a meal with loved ones, or showing we care by making sure our loved ones are fed, is an ideology that is carried in modern, everyday Korean society.

세배 (Sebae)

Sebae is to honour your ancestors who are alive! Sebae is the name of the specific traditional bow you give to your family members who are generationally older than you. I have fond memories of putting on my hanbok as a child and frolicking through the countryside between my elder relatives’ homes. You would be invited inside, and there you would perform the bow and tell them the Seollal greeting. In response, your elders respond with the same greeting or something more specific, like “May you be healthy and happy this year,” or “May your career kickstart this year,” or the dreaded: “May you get married this year.” They also are likely to give you an envelope of money, 세뱃돈 (sebaetdon), in return to symbolize their well wishes for your luck and prosperity

Traditional foods 

According to the traditional system, Seollal meant it was everybody’s birthday, and the moment you turn a year older would be marked by eating 떡국 (tteokguk) on this day: a rice cake soup symbolizing purity. Thanks to a new law, Koreans will be reverting to their international age starting June 2023, making their documented age bump down one or two years. We, of course, had tteokguk, and tend to have it multiple times a year as it is one of my dad’s favourite foods and is simple to make. 

My mom spent most of the food preparation time making various kinds of 전 (jeon), which are basically various sliced vegetables, meats, and seafood dipped in flour and egg, and then fried in a pan. I’ve seen Koreans use this method to make jeon out of basically any ingredient to a comical extent, and it’s a delicious way to make sure those sad root vegetables sitting in your fridge get consumed. Some jeon are prepared slightly differently and these are shaped like round flat pancakes, filled with kimchi, green onion, or seafood. My mom made eggplant jeon, zucchini jeon, wanjajeon, and daegujeon. The latter two are more time consuming to make as wanjajeon needs to be individually handshaped into little circular disks first, and daegujeon requires proper fish preparation methods. As my mom cooked, she reminisced over memories of making these foods in a much grander extent, growing up in the ’80s. All the women in the family gathered to make everything, including the dumpling wrappers and sikke, from scratch, while the men of the family secured the meats and seafood and entertained the children. She said celebrating Seollal again lifted these wandering memories to the surface. Jeon goes super well with a Korean rice-based liquor called makgeolli or a non-alcoholic sweet rice beverage called Shike.

One of the main activities we partook in on Seollal was to make mandu (Korean dumplings) together, as more hands make lighter work. Each mandu is individually assembled by hand, placed in a steamer in batches, and consumed, frozen, or panfried. We made over a hundred mandu this year to circulate around to our friends’ homes — I find the shaping of the mandu a tedious but therapeutic experience. I was dismayed to find my partner making beautiful mandu right away, whereas mine looked like garbage no matter how many times I was taught. 

There are many other traditional foods that can be prepared and eaten on Seollal like japchae (glass noodle stir fry), sweet tteok (sweet ricecakes), or various fruits including asian pears, but these are the main big three our household focused on this year.

Traditional games

At various points throughout the day, we sat down and played 화투 Hwatu and 윳놀이 (Yut-Nori). One aspect of Seollal I really love is that these games can keep you entertained for hours, and are activities that help you disconnect from screens and connect with your family members. Hwatu, also referred to as Godori, Go-Stop, or in translation: “War of the Flowers,” is a card game based on the Japanese Hanafuda. The game was brought to Korea during the Japanese occupation during the 1900s. Although there is painful colonial history associated with that time and with Japan, this game is still a widely popular game in Korea. Perhaps too widely popular, as it is often a game associated with gambling. The game is too complicated to explain here but basically it’s like the poker of go-fish, and is almost guaranteed to bring out your competitiveness. 

Yut-Nori is a traditional Korean folk game that is much more accessible and playful than Hwatu. Whereas Hwatu is mainly played by adults with its complicated rules, yut-nori can be played and enjoyed by everyone! It involves tossing four, marked, wooden game sticks instead of dice to see how many moves you get to make on the board. You are split up in two teams, and the goal is to get all your pieces across the board faster than your opponent. If Hwatu is the poker of go-fish, Yut-Nori is like the games chess and Sorry! combined. My father always said Yut-Nori is the “game representative of life,” because depending on strokes of luck, you can turn the game in your favour. If you’re unlucky enough, you can also get completely fucked by your opponent in one turn when you were on the brink of winning. When playing Yut-Nori, you can’t help but laugh, especially when these huge shifts happen, and my father always said that applies to life too. When things go horribly wrong, let’s just laugh, because you never know when the tides will turn just as dramatically in your favour. 

Happy Seollal, and may you receive many blessings this year! 새해 복 많이 받으세요!