Happy Korean New Year! Celebrating the New Year is a serious matter for Koreans. So much so that we often celebrate it twice a year – first on the Gregorian calendar New Year’s Day and second on the Lunar New Year’s Day. I still remember clearly celebrating this day back in Korea when I was a boy. Here are 5 top highlights of the day that Korean families all over the world still look forward to on Seollal. Try one or try them all this year, even if it’s just on Zoom.
1. Wear Hanbok
Getting dressed up in flamboyant traditional Korean clothes called “Hanbok” is great fun on New Year’s Day. Hanbok is worn quite baggy, so size rarely matters in wearing old hanbok or borrowing relatives’ clothes.
Koreans have a tradition called “seol bim” which entails donning new clothes on New Year’s day. So if you don’t have hanbok, try wearing something brand new to get into the spirit of making a fresh start.
The most important custom on this day! We do sebae (the big bow all the way down to the ground to the point of prostrating ourselves) to our parents and other elder victims, saying “Saehae bok mahnhee bahdeuh saeyo!” (“May you be blessed with a lot of luck and fortune in the New Year!”). The elders then give us cash as well as a New Year blessing in return to each. Those kids who have a lot of older relatives often make a fortune on this day! Our adult kids still observe this custom whenever possible.
3. Eating Tteokguk
Tteokguk is a soup dish made out of beef broth and rice cakes, sometimes including Korean dumplings called Mandu. The snow white tteok represents a fresh new start with the new year. We like to make the mandu with our whole family and love all the different shapes everyone makes. Delicious!
There are many other traditional foods that we eat on New Year’s day but tteokguk is the most important and meaningful.
4. Playing Yut
Yutnori is a traditional Korean board game the objective of which is to have all of your own 5 game pieces skip around the board faster than everyone else. Your pieces move around the board depending upon how your 4 yut sticks that you throw into the air land. If you’ve ever played the game Sorry, you already know the basic rules. If you have a lot of players, you play as teams, each team member getting a chance to throw the sticks. So much fun! Of course, there is usually money on the line.
5. Visiting Relatives
We used to make a number of stops during the day all dressed up in Hanbok, during which we repeated 2, 3, and 4 above! If you aren’t able to visit relatives on New Year’s day, try visiting them via Zoom and saying “Saehae bok mahnhee bahdeuh saeyo!”. It’s a wonderful way to start the New Year, and will instantly zoom you up the ladder of favorite relatives.
Korean New Year might not be a big deal in the western world but if you try the above customs, I guarantee that the spirit of Korean Seollal will make this the most fun New Year’s Day ever. And, tteokguk is not a bad antidote to your hangover from New Year’s Eve….