Are you excited about Seollal and want to know more about the holiday?
You’re in luck! 😘
I wrote a post to cover everything that makes Seollal great!
Seollal covers a lot in Korea. It’s like Christmas and New Year’s all rolled into one with a sprinkle of Halloween (instead of candy you get money).
Let’s get started!
Why Seollal is the best holiday in Korea
- You get off work/school
- You eat good food
- You play fun games
- You get money
- You spend time with people you love (sometimes!)
What’s Seollal and why it’s important in Korea?
Seollal (설날) is Lunar New Year celebrated by Koreans.
It’s one of the two main holidays together with Chuseok (추석). And like Chuseok, it’s a chance to remember and honor ancestors.
Koreans still say that you get one year older on Seollal after having a bowl of tteokguk (떡국).
As a kid, Seollal is amazing because you get to feel older and receive pocket money (세뱃돈 or sebaetdon) from every adult. On the other hand, adults end up spending quite a bit to pay for groceries, fruits, gifts and New Year’s money.
It’s a fun holiday where all the families and relatives living across the country gather in one place!
What is the origin of Seollal?
It started during the Goryeo period about 1,000 years ago. Back then it was one of the 9 important festivals with ceremonies honoring ancestors. It gradually grew into the biggest holiday in Korea.
When is Seollal in 2023?
Seollal in 2023 is Sunday, January 22nd, and Seollal in 2024 is Saturday, February 10th.
Since it’s based on the lunar calendar, the dates keep changing every year.
(My parents and grandparents’ generations believe that the lunar calendar is more accurate when it comes to weather and such. For that reason, my family still celebrates lunar birthdays among themselves.)
How long does Seollal last?
Usually, Seollal lasts 3 days, including the day before Seollal, the day of Seollal and the day after.
Koreans are ecstatic when Seollal doesn’t overlap weekends like this year, because they get 5-day holidays including the weekend, from Saturday, January 29th to Wednesday, February 2nd.
They obsess over the length of public holidays, because Koreans don’t get much time off. They’ll check the calendar for next year whenever they’re bored, and will rejoice or lament according to the length of public holidays. Even now in 2023, some of my friends look as far forward as 2025 on their iPhone calendars.
Sadly, Seollal 2023 is on a Sunday, so even with an extra day of substitute holiday (대체공휴일 or daechae gonghyuil), it’s only 4 days including the weekend.
The more frustrating news is that Seollal 2024 will last only 3 days from Friday to Sunday. On noes 😭
See what I mean?
What to say to Koreans during Seollal?
If you want to keep it in English, feel free to say “Happy Seollal” to your Korean friends. Make sure to avoid saying “Happy Chinese New Year” to Koreans. They will be annoyed to say the least!
If you’re fluent in Korean, you can say “새해 복 많이 받으세요 (saehae bok mahni bahdeuseyo)” to pretty much any Korean, including your extended family, coworkers, boss and acquaintances.
The casual way is “새해 복 많이 받아 (saehae bok mahni bahdah)” for your friends.
For an email or text message, you can also write the same or “즐겁고 행복한 설 명절 보내세요!”, which means “Have a fun and happy Seol holiday!”. There are many fun emoticons on KakaoTalk that you’ll see getting passed around.
What do you wear on Seollal?
Korean children sometimes wear hanbok on Seollal, but most people keep it modern.
Koreans normally pack comfy clothes to change into once they say hello and are ready to cook enough food for the entire family to last the holiday. Koreans, especially the older generation, can’t stand running out of food, so they cook enough to feed a small army. There are always leftovers that are distributed to everyone to take home.
How is Seollal celebrated?
- First day of Seol holiday:
Koreans usually gather at the beginning of Seollal to cook special holiday dishes.
Then, relatives catch up and have fun chatting and playing some traditional games until late. People usually sleep over at their grandparent’s house where they get together.
- Actual day of Seollal:
On the morning of the actual Seollal day, Koreans perform an ancestral rite by setting up a memorial service table (차례상 or charyesang) and bowing. After the ceremony, everyone eats tteokguk (떡국) to get one year older. They have some fruit and coffee after the meal.
Then, younger people perform sebae (세배) for grandparents, parents and older relatives. The adults who receive sebae give words of blessing (덕담 or deokdam) and New Year’s money in an envelope (세뱃돈 or sebaetdon).
Families visit their ancestral graves or more relatives (this part depends on the family), and then go celebrate with the other side of the family.
For example, a married couple will usually visit the husband’s family first, and then the wife’s family the next day. Everything is cooked by then, so they’ll just hang out and do sebae for other relatives.
What’s Sebae (세배)?
Sebae (세배) is actually the ritual where younger Koreans bow to those from the older generation and say “새해 복 많이 받으세요 (saehae bok mahni bahdeuseyo)”, wishing them a happy new year.
Older Koreans who receive sebae appreciate this gesture and give deokdam and sebaetdon in return.
I loved this culture as a kid and made a lot of money, because every adult gave me about 50,000 to 100,000 won (about 50-100 dollars). And I have a big family. Sometimes, I even performed sebae for really distant relatives I don’t even know.
The only thing Korean kids need to watch out for is when their moms say “I’ll save these for you”, because you may never see that money again. But to be fair, they probably use it for their kids.
The flip side of this is when you get older, you have to pay it forward to your relative’s kids. Now, it’s common for me to spend around 1,000 USD on Seollal.
What games do Koreans play during Seollal?
It varies depending on family tradition. In case of my immediate and extended family (up to 26 people when all relatives gather), we play 윷놀이 (yutnori or yunnori), which is a traditional board game in Korea.
When a smaller, direct family gathers (especially due to the COVID situation), we also play 고스톱 (go-stop or hwatu), which is a really fun card game reserved for adults.
Gift ideas for Seollal?
Check out our post about 17 Korean Gift Ideas for each Holiday and Occasion.
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Did we miss anything?
Let us know your thoughts or questions about seollal in the comments!
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