Lunar New Year(春节)
Seol (Kor. 설), or the Korean New Year, is the most important traditional holiday in Korea. On this day, Koreans celebrate the beginning of the year by the lunar calendar. Seol is known by many other names, including Wonil (Kor. 원일, Chin. 元日, lit. The First Day), Wondan (Kor. 원단, Chin. 元旦, lit. The First Morning), Wonjeong (Kor. 원정, Chin. 元正, lit. The First Month), Wonsin (Kor. 원신, Chin. 元新, lit. The First New), Wonjo (Kor. 원조, Chin. 元朝, lit. The First Morning), Jeongjo (Kor. 정조, Chin. 正朝, lit. The Morning of the First Month), Sesu (Kor. 세수, Chin. 歲首, lit. The Head of the Year), Secho (Kor. 세초, Chin. 歲初, lit. The Beginning of the Year), Yeondu (Kor. 연두, Chin. 年頭, lit. The Head of the Year), Yeonsu (Kor. 연수, Chin. 年首, lit. The Head of the Year) and Yeonsi (Kor. 연시, Chin. 年始, lit. The Beginning of the Year).
According to the “Goryeosa” (The History of Goryeo, 1396-1454), during the Goryeo period (918-1392), the Lunar New Year was one of the nine major festivals that included ancestral memorial ceremonies. The other eight major celebrations were Sangwon (Kor. 상원, Chin. 上元, lit. High Beginning, the fifteenth day of the first lunar month), Sangsa (Kor. 상사, Chin. 上巳, lit. High Snake [Day], the third day of the third lunar month), Hansik (Kor. 한식, Chin. 寒食, lit. Cold Food [Day], the 105th day after the Winter Solstice), Dano (Kor. 단오, Chin. 端午, lit. The First Fifth, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month), Chuseok (Kor. 추석, Chin. 秋夕, lit. Autumn Evening, the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month), Junggu (Kor. 중구, Chin. 重九, lit. Double Nine [Day], the ninth day of the ninth lunar month), Palgwan (Kor. 팔관, Chin. 八關, lit. Eight Gates [Day], the fifteenth day of the tenth lunar month) and Dongji (Kor. 동지, Chin. 冬至, Winter Solstice). During the Joseon period (1392-1910), the Lunar New Year continued to be one of the four major seasonal celebrations, the others being Hansik, Dano and Chuseok.
Most Korean families celebrate the Lunar New Year with an ancestral memorial ceremony called charye (lit. tea offering ceremony), held during the morning on the festival day. The ceremony, usually officiated by the eldest son or grandson of a chief family or clan, is held for all or some of the preceding four generations of ancestors. (Earlier generations of ancestors are venerated in a memorial ceremony held once a year by their graveside). After the tea offering ceremony on New Year’s Day, the family pays respects to the immediate ancestors by visiting and tending their graves.
An important New Year rite for common people during the Joseon period was antaek (Kor. 안택, Chin. 安宅, lit. peaceful house), a shamanic exorcism in which a professional shaman was invited to a home to pray for the safety of the house and its inhabitants. In some areas this rite was replaced by hongsumagi (or hoeingsumagi, Kor. 홍수막이, lit. protection from evil spirits). A housewife would either visit a shaman or invite the shaman to her home. The shaman would then perform a prayer service called bison (Kor. 비손, lit. praying hands), characterized by the rubbing of one’s hands in a reverent, prayerful manner. Some families regarded such prayer as an essential part of their New Year rituals, particularly if a family member was thought to have been afflicted with bad fortune that year. The custom often ended with the construction of a straw effigy, which contained some money and a piece of paper with the time and date of birth of the unfortunate family member. The effigy was then left at a crossroads outside the village with the belief that it would drive away bad fortune.
In the royal court of Joseon, ministers gathered to celebrate the New Year and pay tribute by offering vows to the king and the dynasty. The king and his ministers exchanged sehwa (Kor. 세화, Chin. 歲畵, New Year painting) that depicted the Longevity Star Spirit, Maiden of Immortality, Duty Day Guardian Deity or other Taoist figures. These were believed to have the power to expel evil forces. The tradition of seeking protection from evil via the display of a symbolic image was also maintained by common people, who would inscribe the characters 龍 (Kor. 용, dragon) and 虎 (Kor. 호, tiger) on the gates of their houses.
One Korean folk belief related to the New Year celebration states that people become one year older only after they have eaten a bowl of tteokguk (rice-cake soup) on New Year’s Day. There is also a belief that having a new bokjori (Kor. 복조리, lit. fortune strainer) helps to bring good fortune.
In the past, Korean people believed that hearing the caw of a magpie in the early morning on New Year’s Day was an auspicious omen, while the cawing of a crow would bring misfortune. They also imagined that yagwanggwi (Kor. 야광귀, Chin. 夜光鬼), or glowing nocturnal ghosts, would descend to the human world on New Year’s Eve to steal shoes. If the shoes fit, the ghost would take them, bestowing bad luck on the shoe owner for the entire year. In some areas, the ghosts were believed to come to the human world during the night after the first full moon, which falls on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. For this reason, people in these areas called the sixteenth day "Ghosts’ Day" and hid their shoes in a safe place to prevent them from being stolen by mischievous spirits. In an effort to repel the ghosts, some would hang sieves or winnowing baskets on a wall of their house or burn chili and cotton seeds to produce a strong smelling scent.
According to another folk tale, playing the Korean seesaw game on New Year’s Day would prevent athlete’s foot for the year. The traditional game of kite flying was particularly popular between the Lunar New Year’s Eve and the Great Full Moon Festival (the fifteenth of the first lunar month). Participants wrote prayers such as "Farewell to Misfortune" and "Farewell Misfortune, Welcome Fortune" on the kite and cut the string, believing that as the kite soared far away it would take their misfortune with it. After the festival, they would stop kite flying for some time, for fear that the misfortune might return.
For most Korean people, Lunar New Year was an occasion to flaunt their seolbim (Kor. 설빔, New Year’s clothing). These clothes were the prettiest and most ostentatious they had and were specially prepared for that day. In certain ancient texts, such as the “Gyeongdo Japji” (Kor. 경도잡지, Chin. 京都雜志, Miscellaneous Records of the Capital, 18th century) and the “Yeoryang Sesigi” (Kor. 열양세시기, Chin. 洌陽歲時記, Records of Seasonal Festivities around the Capital, 1819), such clothing was also referred to as sejang (Kor. 세장, Chin. 歲粧, lit. New Year’s decoration) or sebieum (Kor. 세비음, Chin. 歲疪陰, clothes for the New Year).
Many of the Korean traditional folk games still played today were invented for the purpose of entertaining people during the Lunar New Year holiday season. The need for entertainment can be attributed both to the agricultural off-season and the sacredness of the period, in which the old year fades away and the new year unfolds with great promise for the days to come.