Seollal = Korean New Year’s Day (설날)

In 2016, Seollal will be celebrated on February 7th. This week on Korea Ye, we’ll be sharing several posts about this important holiday with you, our readers.



Like many Asian countries, Korea follows both the solar (western) and lunar (eastern) calendars. Although a little confusing to Westerners, this sometimes means duplicate holidays on different dates. Thus, New Year’s Day is observed on January 1 as a Korean government/business holiday, but Koreans are much more excited about the lunar new year (seollal or설날), celebrated a few weeks later (normally calculated as the second new moon after winter solstice).

For foreigners in Korea, seollal means crowded stores (and higher prices), a few days off from work, and heavy traffic as Koreans leave the cities in droves for their hometowns. For Koreans, however, seollal is a very meaningful (and rather expensive) family holiday with a number of traditional foods, ceremonial rites, and customs based on Confucianism.


The day before the lunar new year begins is spent preparing fruits, vegetables, savory pancakes and numerous other traditional dishes. Probably the most important food is tteokguk (rice cake soup); eating tteokguk on Seollal is believed to make Koreans one year older regardless of their actual birthdate; clever children may ask their elders how many times they have eaten tteokguk as a sly way of assessing their age. Koreans try to stay awake all night on the eve of Seollal; tradition holds that sleeping that night will make one’s eyebrows turn white.

On the morning of Seollal, adults and children dress in new clothing (seolbim, or설빔, which symbolizes a clean beginning), which may be traditional hanbok or formal modern clothing. In most Korean homes (not Protestants), an ancestor-memorial ceremony (a form of jesu called charye) is carefully followed.


Family members set a lacquer table for their (deceased) forefathers following ritual rules about food types and the order and location of the special dishes. Once the table is properly set, family members greet their ancestors with a ritual of deep bowing (called sebae or세배), offerings, and prayers. Later, the children offer deep bows of respect to their (living) elders, who give the children a blessing and a significant amount of crisp cash.

(Get a tutorial on how to bow properly here.)


Throughout the holiday, family members catch up on each others’ lives and play traditional games (e.g., a board game called yutnori; a game similar to hackysack called jegichagi). In some regions, villagers may gather to burn “moon houses” of pine boughs to ward off evil spirits and grant wishes for the new year.


Seollal is an expensive but very meaningful holiday for Koreans. Fortunately, many tourist sites are still open and host special events to help foreigners understand this holiday. Therefore, foreigners can visit museums, palaces, amusement parks, and other publicized locations in larger Korean cities to try seollal foods, practice bowing in hanbok, and play traditional games. It’s a perfect time to learn more about Korean culture while the crowds are away visiting family.


Editor’s Note: All photos in this post were found elsewhere online. Please click on each photo for its original source.

One thought on “Seollal = Korean New Year’s Day (설날)

  1. Korean living in Seoul says:

    Thanks for the informative post. There are just few things I would like to correct.
    This year the Lunar New Year’ s day is 8 January not 7 🙂
    And about staying up a night before Seollal(New Year day), I don’t think Koreans do it. I think I heard the story – white eyebrow – when I was very young, but actually I haven’t seen any family doing it .
    Some parts like wearing Korean traditional clothes on the day, using a specific lacquer table for the ceremony are certainly traditional, but cannot be found in many modern Korean families.
    It is interesting to read this article written by a foreigner’s view. Again, thanks for sharing interesting news.


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