Seol - Lunar New Year

by J S Lee, 24/01/2019

The Lunar New Year’s Day called Seol or Seolnal in Korean is the largest and most important seasonal festivals in Korea since ancient times. Korean people were introduced to the New Year’s Day by the solar calendar in 1819, the 31st year of the King Gojong’s rule, but they still regard the traditional New Year’s Day as the “proper” beginning of a new year. On this day, Korean people who follow traditions will hold a variety of ceremonies and rituals praying for the safety and prosperity of their families and communities and repulsion of evil forces in the year 2019.

Held in the morning of the Lunar New Year’s Day (Seol), the ancestral tea offering ceremony called Charye in Korean is one of the most important ancestral memorial ceremonies during which descendants express their feelings of love and respect towards their ancestors. Charye usually takes place at a family shrine or the main room of a house where a folding screen is set behind an altar table arranged with a range of sacrificial offerings on it including fruits, cooked vegetables and soups.

The arrangement of offerings vary according to family traditions and regions, but a general rule is that fruits are arranged on the front row with red fruits in the east and white ones in the west. Some crops such as peach, garlic and red pepper (including foods seasoned with red pepper powder) are not allowed to offer because they are traditionally believed to be abhorred by the spirits of the dead. Fish whose name ends with “chi” in Korean, such as Myeolchi (anchovy), Kkongchi (mackerel pike), Galchi (hairtail) and Samchi (Spanish mackerel), are also regarded as not appropriate to be offered largely because they are regarded as inferior to other fish. The most important rule regarding the ancestral ceremony is that the offering table should be arranged with the best and newest crops and fruits available.

After the tea offering ceremony, the offered foods are shared by the entire family members after the ceremonious exchange of “New Year Greetings” (Sebae) characterized by deep bows. The greetings lead to the giving or exchange of New Year’s gift money, special food or/and well-wishing remarks such as “I wish you many happy days now and in the future” or “I wish you all the success.”

A favourite Lunar New Year’s Day dish is “rice cake soup” (tteokguk). The main ingredient of this festive food is oval slices of tubular rice cake whose whiteness is often compared with the white clothing that Korean people loved to wear since ancient times. Eating a bowl of pure white rice cake soup has been widely regarded as the most appropriate way of greeting the morning of the New Year’s Day. The long tubular rice also represents a long life and cutting it into coin shapes symbolizes prosperity and the sun. A bowl of rice cake soup consumed on the Lunar New Year’s Day symbolizes their long tradition of solar worship and their desire for a long healthy life and prosperity.

Popular traditional folk games to celebrate Lunar New Year’s Day include kite flying and yunnori. Started even before the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BCE - 668), the practice of kite flying had been played as part of the effort to predict the future, whether they were going to have a good harvest and lead a happy life, and expel evil forces while inviting fortune. Yunnori, or a game of four sticks, and others developed as part of the effort to bring harmony, solidarity, peace and safety to the community. 

For more details about traditional foods, games, ceremonies and rituals, click here. See also the K4E What's Going On section for exhibitions, events, etc. marking the lunar new year, in particular the Year of the Golden Pig.

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