Lunar New Year: Korean Style

A lot of people know that this Thursday was Chinese New Year–what they didn’t know is that it was also Korean New Year, Vietnamese New Year, Japanese New Year and several other South/Central Asian countries.

Living in Asia has made me come to appreciate more and more the differences between each Asian country and area.  It’s not all tea, dragons, and panda bears, and although those things rock, I was pretty excited to be experiencing my first Korean New Year.

Korean New Year, like the other countries I mentioned, are based on the lunar calendar and thus aren’t always celebrated on the same day of the (Gregorian) year.  Seolnal 설날 is a day based around family and falls on the second new moon after the Winter Solstice.  It is one of the most important Korean holidays and actually lasts three days.  In those three days, families participate in exercises of filial piety, remember ancestors, exchange gifts (typically money or food), and of course eat lots of food and play games.

One of the most intriguing parts of Korean New Year for me is that it’s basically the entire country’s birthday.  In the tradition of age reckoning, everyone becomes one year older on Seolnal.  Koreans also celebrate their birth date and that age is used on official documents but with the new year, Koreans traditionally add another sal 살 (age unit).  When a Korean child is born, they are considered 1 year old and even if Seolnal falls three weeks after they are born, they become 2 years old at that time.  It’s honestly a bit confusing to me and goes much deeper than this, so if you’re interested in learning more about age reckoning, check out this site.

For my New Year, I went to Namsangol Hanok Village, which is at the base of the mountain that Seoul Tower sits on.  I was with my co-workers Kimmie and Clair and since my camera’s batteries had run out, Clair allowed me to pester her whenever I wanted a photo of something.  All photo credits go to her and her good nature!

We rode the subway for about an hour to Namsangol and things were pretty crowded leading up to the entrance of the free event.   One of the first things we saw were cut outs of people wearing hanbok that you could substitute your face into and naturally, we all had to stop and take our turns pretending to be Korean.  An older Korean woman (called “ajummas”) saw this and just could not stop laughing.  She makes an excellent addition to my photo, don’t you think?

The temperatures have been several degrees above freezing the past few days so the perma-snow melting made for a muddy tramp up the hill and into the village, not made any easier by the tantalizing scents of roasting chestnuts, honey-soaked desserts, soups, squids, rice cakes, waffles, and other fried street food snacks.

Once we made it into the venue, the first thing we saw was people jumping up and down on seesaws, propelling each other higher and higher into the air with each jump.  This game is called neolttwigi 널뛰기 and supposed to be played by women and girls, though we saw all genders participating.  Another game being played nearby was yut and to be honest, I don’t know the rules.  Players take turns throwing sticks and their order of falling onto the playing mat determines how many spaces they can move their game piece on a wooden board.   That is the extent of my knowledge.  I should work on that.

Next we moved onto listening to Korean folk music played by girls in what I can only describe as sexy hanbok.  Take the outfit from the above photo, give it a miniskirt and no sleeves, and there you have it.  There were two bamboo flute players, a two stringed Korean fiddle player (haegum), and a xylophone like instrument called a yanggeum and they drew quite a crowd.  After a few songs they left the stage and we kept on wandering, hoping to run into the free food the tourism website offered.

No soup for you!

Sadly, the line was entirely too long in proportion to our enjoyment of kimchi and rice cake soup, but there were lots of crafts activities that we could participate in for a small fee.  We paid W3,000 and made little bags with good luck knots on them and afterward wrote our wishes for the new year onto colored tissue paper and tied them to a tree.  I’m not sure what the protocol is, but we all kept our wishes a secret.  I’m sure they were all cheesy though.

After that, we walked around for a bit exploring the grounds of the village, checking out everyone’s hanbok, and watching kites being flown.

As part of our wanderings, we ran into a Korean drumming group and stopped to watch the performance.  They chant, drum, and dance with exaggerated head movements to make the ribbons a-top their caps flutter around.  It’s dizzying and wonderful and in larger venues, I’ve seen dancers doing backflips with the ribbons trailing behind them. 

After viewing the anti-climactic Seoul Time Capsule, we headed back to subway and home to Ilsan for some pho, or Vietnamese noodle soup.  Good for the soul on a damp, cold day.

The rest of my Lunar New Year vacation was spent in unblog-worthy ways–reading, drinking copious amounts of honeyed tea, sleeping in, and spending time with friends.  It was a nice break, but today I was really happy to be back with my students.  Lunar year or otherwise, loving your job and the country you live in is a fantastic feeling.

Sae hae bok man-hi ba-deu saeyo 새해 복 많이 받으세 to everyone!



2 thoughts on “Lunar New Year: Korean Style

  1. Pingback: Rough Day at the Office | Alexa Abroad

  2. Pingback: When do we get to eat all the cherries? | Alexa Abroad

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