Updated December 2019.
It’s December 2019 and most of us are looking forward to the holidays. New Year is but a a couple of weeks away for those of us in the West who follow what is called the Gregorian calendar, but for much of the world their traditional New Year is still a month away. To keep the worlds of business and finance running smoothly most countries follow the Gregorian Calendar, but there are other major calendars out there that follow a lunar, or luna-solar calendar rather than a purely solar one. The big three are the traditional Chinese, Jewish, and Hindu calendars, although there are actually multiple Hindi calendars with different dates for their New Year. Due to the proximity and close historical interactions between Korea and China in the past, Korea mostly follows the Chinese calendar, and zodiac, for cultural and traditional purposes.
The beginnings of the Chinese calendar dates back thousands of years, with some people estimating that we are in the year 4715 of that calendar, although this is somewhat hard to definitively prove. However, it is undeniable that the Chinese calendar is of ancient origin with records of the Zhou Dynasty (1046 -256 BCE) showing their calendar to be fairly sophisticated and using aspects of both lunar (moon) phases and solar (sun) movements. Months began on the day of the ‘darkmoon’. Emperor Wu of the Han (141- 87 BCE ) introduced reforms to the earlier calendars and all Chinese calendars since then have been based off these reforms.The later reforms of the Ming Dynasty, (1368 -1644 CE) although not released until early Qing Dynasty, (1644 – 1912 CE) used new to them astronomical data which eventually allowed the calendar to adapt to different places in the world. Various calendar observances are now calculated in Korea using the Korean meridian (line of longitude ) not a Chinese one.
The Korean calendar, while based off the Chinese one, shows observances and festivals based on Korean culture and traditions. The Korean New Year Festival is called Seollal and often lasts 3 or more days. This year, 2020, the 24th, 25th and 27th of January are national holidays. Many Koreans try to return home to visit their families and Seollal is the busiest time of year to travel. Estimates say that 36 million Koreans traveled to visit their families in 2016, that is from a population of just over 50 million! Many shops, restaurants, and businesses close at this time and food prices tend to rise due to heavy demand. Theme parks and some attractions stay open, so be sure to check first if you’re traveling at this time of year. People even line up at train stations and online to get train tickets for the holidays as soon as they go on sale. It is like buying popular concert tickets that sell out very quickly. Korea has been celebrating Seollal as a holiday for many centuries, with Chinese records recording New Year festivities in ancient Silla.
The preparations can take a long time and can be expensive. A large number of ritual and traditional foods need to be prepared, and travel arrangements worked out. New clothes may need to be bought, and while not every family will wear hanboks, everyone will dress in nice, respectful clothing. Gifts are also given to certain family members and money envelopes to others. The first day of the ‘holiday’ is for preparation and travel, (New Year’s Eve.)
At midnight on New Year’s Eve the Bosingak Bell in Seoul is rung to welcome the new year. This ceremony has become so popular in recent years the closest subway station is temporarily closed for better crowd control.
On New Year’s Day morning families dress up and perform their ancestral rites, basically a ritual to show respect and gratitude to your ancestors. Also prayers are said for the well being and success of all the family members. This part of the holiday is slowly becoming less common and not all families do this. After the rites everyone gets together and shares the prepared food with tteok gu, rice cake soup being very traditional. At some point the younger members of the family will give their respects to the older family members by bowing and maybe giving them gifts. The older family members will give their best wishes for a good and prosperous new year and even hand out special money envelopes called sebaetdon to the youngsters.
Over the course of the holiday many traditional games such as Yut and Jegi Chagi are often played and kite flying is also popular. If visiting a Folk Village or historic site neolltwigi, or see-saw jumping, and geune ttwigi, or rope swinging, were also traditional holiday pastimes. Families enjoy chatting, reminiscing, telling family stories and just spending quality multi-generational time together.
In 2020 Seollal falls on January 25th based on the Korean calendar and it marks day 1 of month 1. Other festivals such as Daeboreum, Dano, and Chuseok are determined by the tradition calendar. Dano falls on day 5 of month 5, while Chuseok is on the 15th day of month 8. While everyday life conforms to the Gregorian calendar it is nice to know that traditional and cultural events and festivals are continuing to be determined by the traditional calendar. (In the US the only ‘moving’ holiday is Thanksgiving which is always the 4th Thursday in November.)
2020 will be the year of the Rat. It will be a White, Yang, Metal, Rat year. It appears it will be a rather normal year for most people with the usual ups and downs. If you want to learn more about the Korean zodiac check here and here.
Have a great day everyone.
You may also enjoy Beolcho: A Korean Tradition Of Maintaining Ancestral Grave Mounds, and Your Horoscope In Korea.
All photo credits to original owners, map to BBC.com, seollal & bell photos to visitkorea.org, zodiac rats found on pinterest, and games and burial tombs photos to me.
Please do not copy or use without permission and accreditation.