Welcoming the Year of the Blue Sheep

by Emma Lee, 12/01/2015

Lunar New Year (Seollal) 2015 falls on Thursday 19 February marking the end of the Year of the ‘Blue’ Horse and the beginning of the Year of the ‘Blue’ Sheep, the 8th in the group of 12 animal year cycle (rat.mouse, ox/cow, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep/goat, rooster/chicken, dog and pig).
If you were born in 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991 or 2003, you are a ‘sheep’. You are most compatible with people born in the years of the pig and rabbit while least compatible with cow/ox year people.

People born in the Year of the Sheep are described as being compassionate, peaceful and genial. They are also said to be fearful and indecisive, as well as rash and stubborn.  The sheep year is expected to be a calmer, more peaceful time with the sheep being a ‘lucky’ animal, a good omen for the coming year. A Korean legend has it that Lee Seong-gye, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty, dreamed of a sheep before staging the coup that marked the beginning of his reign and the longest dynasty in Korea’s history.

Because the Chinese character for the 8th animal sign is ‘yang’, a term that refers to various horned mammals, it has been translated to both ‘sheep’ and ‘goat’. Prior to the 20th century, sheep were not commonly found in Korea, which explains why depictions of the 8th animal more closely resemble the goat or long-tailed goral than sheep.

To mark the beginning of this new lunar year, Koreans will enjoy a 5-day long weekend. The Seollal (Lunar New Year) holiday generally includes the day before and the day after New Year’s Day to allow people a full day before and after the holiday to commute to their hometowns, meet relatives and pay respect to their ancestors. Traffic during the holiday will inevitably be one-way, with an exodus out of Seoul before the day, and a return back to Seoul after. Trips that normally may take only a couple of hours can take a lot longer (8 hours or more in some cases). That said, as traditions change, some people will turn the 5-day holiday into a 9-day break and travel outside the country.

The main tradition of Seollal is called Charye, which is performed early in the morning. An offering of food is sacrificed for ancestors, and family members pay their respects by bowing twice. Afterward, the food is usually eaten to close the ritual. During a Charye ritual, food is offered to ancestors, and participants must make two deep bows.  Another morning ritual is Sebae, in which younger people pay their respects to their elder relatives by performing one deep bow and saying “Sae hae bok mani badusaeyo” which translates to “Receive many new year blessings.” They are then rewarded with pocket money and words of wisdom.

It is also common to eat tteokguk, a soup with slices of rice cake, to signify advancing one year in age. Although in modern times one’s official age is calculated based on one’s birth date, some Koreans still mark advancing in age at the start of the Lunar New Year.

After the ceremonies were finished, family members would typically play traditional games with each other. The most popular is Yut, a board game involving sticks rather than dice, Go-Stop, a Korean card game played with Japanese Hanafuda cards. Traditionally, males flew kites on this day, and females played on a see-saw. Visitors and foreign residents can visit local museums, folk villages, etc. to get a taste of traditional Seollal activities and foods.

Image: stone sheep outside location of  tomb of King Kongmin (North Korea)

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