My Korean New Year’s Day

By Maangchi

Today is Korean New Year’s Day (Seolnal:설날 also romanized as “Seollal”), and is pretty much one of the biggest Korean holidays of the year. It spreads over 3 days: the day before Korean New Year’s day, Korean New Year’s day, and then the day after Korean New Year’s day.

The Korean calendar is derived from the Chinese calendar, so Korean New Year’s Day is usually on the same day as Chinese New Year, except every 24 years or so the new moon falls between Korean midnight and Chinese midnight, so Korean New Year starts the day after Chinese New Year. Both calendars are based on the phases of the moon and the changes of the seasons, so they are lunisolar calendars but most people just call them “lunar calendars.”

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Koreans use the Western calendar for the day to day, but we still observe our traditional holidays on the Korean calendar, too. Every year around December, major Korean grocery stores give out free calendars which are useful for keeping track of the dates on these 2 calendars. My mom always calls me on my birthday according to the Korean calendar, and my birthday according to the Western calendar. I get 2 birthdays every year!

When I was a kid, the most exciting thing for me about Seolnal was the fact that we all got new clothes on that day. I set them in a folded pile on my bed the night before, above my pillow, shoes on top, so they would be waiting for me in the morning. I was so excited! They were usually a colorful, warm sweater and nice pants.

When I was growing up, we used to spend Seolnal at my grandma’s house in Korea, on the southern island of Namhae. Early in the morning of New Year’s Day we children would put on our new clothes, and our parents would wear their nicest traditional Korean clothes (called hanbok: 한복). The women of the family, and especially the daughters-in-law, would prepare food and drink for the ancestral rites (called charye: 차례) at my uncle’s house. A table was set with all the food, drinks, and the ancestral tablet, and the men of the family would bow to the shrine and complete the rites.

I would go out, and meet my friends, cousins, and the other kids and we would check out each other’s new clothes and shoes. When we got back home there was a ton of food waiting for us: rice, side dishes (banchan:반찬), steamed fish, fruits, rice punch (sikhye:식혜), stir-fried glass noodles with vegetables (japchae: 잡채), and assorted pancakes (jeon:) much more than any family could eat! Namhae being an island, there was a lot of seafood and the best fish was set out, especially dried fish like large yellow corvina that had been saved for this special day.

tteokguk (rice cake soup: 떡국)

The most important dish of the day was rice cake soup (tteokguk:떡국) made of chewy rice cake, thinly sliced, made with a good beef or fresh oyster-based broth. After eating this soup, you’re officially one year older (according to Korean age) so this was important to me when I was young. I was elated to be one year older! Of course these days I’m kind of afraid to eat tteokguk on new year’s day! “Eh? I got older?”

After eating, everything was cleaned up and it was time for the younger people pay tribute to their elders by bowing. This is not just any kind of bow, it’s a bit of a ceremony. It would start with my grandma, who would be sitting in a place of honor, the warmest spot on the ondol floor. All her children would bow to her, one by one, a deep bow with their knees on the floor, and their heads down in the bow (called a sebae: 세배), as a show of respect and deference. My grandma would smile and give each one some good wishes for them and their family, a bit of encouragement and wish happy new year. Then her grandchildren would do it, too. She would give us each a good wish, a happy new year, and a little bit of money, too, called “sebae-don,” or “New Year’s Day bowing money.”

Then her children, my parents and their generation, would sit and we kids would bow to them, one by one. They would also give us some good wishes for the new year and a bit of money. “Study hard and have good health,” they would tell me.

As a kid it was tradition that I bow to the generation older than me. So from the grandparents on down, the younger generation paid respect to the elders in waves, and I think it was a great thing for everyone to see, and especially for children to see how elders and grandparents should be respected.

The money they gave us was small money, it was more symbolic of good luck than anything. I used to give it all to my mom afterwards, I didn’t need that money. But over the years the money given to children in the current generation has gone from pennies to hundreds of dollars.

The rest of the day was spent hanging around with friends and family, eating snacks and playing games. Basically we would eat all day. At home there was a lof of food, and whenever we visited someone, there was a lot of food there, too!

In the small village where my grandma lived, everyone was outside playing traditional games like yutnori, jegichagi (kind of like hackeysack, or foot badminton), yeon-nalligi (kite flying), Korean wrestling (ssireum: 씨름) or spinning a top called a paengi (팽이).

I used to love neolttwigi which is like jumping on a see-saw, where you would propel the other person high into the air, and when they landed you would be launched! Up and down, up and down, it was a lot of fun and my favorite game. The point of the game is to always land exactly on the center of the tip of the board, otherwise you’ll lose balance when you land, stumble off the board, and you lose.

After my grandma died, we didn’t go to the island for Seolnal anymore. And soon after that I went to high school in Seoul and over time, bit by bit, some of these New Year’s traditions phased out of my life. I got married, had children, and moved to America, and I don’t have New Year’s like I had in Namhae.

Although not a public holiday here in the USA, it’s still a day for family, and nothing makes me happier than when my children bow or sent me a quick message to me on New Year’s Day.

Like my grandma and my parents did for me, I always give them good wishes for the new year: “Good luck with what you do, be healthy, and happy!”

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10 Comments:

  1. animemaga Canada joined 3/15 & has 3 comments

    In Chinese customs we have a similar dish, Tang Yuan. Its supposed to be sweet but we make it like how you made your tteokguk.

  2. ddnorman Southern NH, USA joined 9/13 & has 76 comments

    Maangchi~ Happy New Year (belated ^^)!

    Last night, my wife and I went to Shira Kiku (my good friend’s Korean restaurant) and I had 떡만두국 (they add 만두 to their 떡국) and many banchan! We had a great time (my friend waitresses on Friday and Saturday and she’s the best hostess ever) and as always the food was delicious!

    Cheers!
    Dave

  3. Observator Rotterdam joined 10/11 & has 6 comments

    Thank you Maangchi for this interesting insight in Korean traditions. I really loved to read your story.
    Here in the Netherlands the ‘rituals’ are/were not so extended. At NewYears day, in my surrounding, we ought to go and visit our grandparents and have nice meetings then. Mostly with coffee and pastry and sometimes with soup (chicken of tomato).
    It occured too that families met each other that day in the house of who had the biggest sittingroom.
    Nowadays this tradition is more and more replaced by phonecalls.
    Due to the distances. Formerly our families lived in the neighbourhood, now, in many cases, that is not so any more.

    Happy New Year Maangchi, have good health (and keep on cooking).
    By the way, your Soegogi-Yachaejuk was delicious and even more than that!

    • Maangchi New York City joined 8/08 & has 11,467 comments

      Thank you for sharing the story!
      Even though we are all from different cultures, we have a lot of similarities.
      You made delicious beef and vegetable porridge. Congratulations!

  4. Cutemom Indonesia joined 3/13 & has 79 comments

    Maangchi ssi,

    Happy new year! I just celebrated Chinese New Year with my family. We always have different foods every year. The night before we had dinner with fish (for always having money or harvest left over), fungus that looks like hair (its chinese name rhyme with the Chinese word for prosper) with dried oyster ( its chines name rhyme with goodness) and pork feet cooked with fermented tofu. Then the next day all the kids, mine and nephews and nieces come to my mom’s house to wish us happy new year along with their parents and I would give them some money in a red envelope. Do you have this tradition too?

    Ima

    • Maangchi New York City joined 8/08 & has 11,467 comments

      Ima,
      Thank you for sharing your culture with us! “fungus that looks like hair” I’m so curious about what it looks like and what it tastes like now!
      “Do you have this tradition too?” Yes, as I said in the blog, we have something similar but we don’t use a red envelope.

  5. charliesommers Nashville, Tn. joined 4/10 & has 12 comments

    Wonderful post Maangchi, it makes me nostalgic for the eight years I spent in Japan and celebrated holidays with my wife’s family. I think we have some rice cakes in our pantry so I will have some with my evening meal which will center on homemade kimchi and crabs. I hope your day is wonderful.

  6. Midnight United States joined 7/13 & has 8 comments

    Beautiful post! Right now I’m kicking myself in the rear for not making fresh ttukguk ttuk so I could have ttukguk today :( lol

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