Seollal (lunar new year’s day) is one of the largest holidays in Korea, and in 2022 it is celebrated on February 1. There are many wonderful Seollal traditions to experience such as eating delicious tteokguk, wearing hanbok, and playing games like yutnori, but perhaps the one tradition that is most loved and easiest to try is sebae, the unique Korean bow.
What is sebae? Sebae is a kind of bowing that dates back thousands of years to before the Joseon Dynasty, and is performed as an act of showing respect to one’s elders. Although Korean people bow to each other every day as a general greeting, the large bow, or keun jeol is reserved for only the most special of occasions, and when performed on new year’s day, it is called sebae.
Sebae is a beloved tradition that is never too late to start in your household. Although details don’t matter as much as the thought and spirit, some readers may be interested in some lesser-known interesting facts about sebae.
Here are 8 things you may not know about the Korean New Year tradition of sebae:
1. There is a correct way to place your hands and feet when bowing
Male: Left hand on top of right, right foot on top of left
Female: Right hand on top of left, left foot on top of right
Bonus: when you bow at a funeral, hand position is opposite as that of sebae.
2. Don’t be mute when bowing
When bowing, you should say “Sae hae bok mahnee badeuseyo (새해 복 많이 받으세요)” which means: “Please receive many new year blessings”. You may also wish good health and long life to the elders.
Then, the elder responds with words of blessing to the bowers.
3. It is not sae hae bae but sebae (세배)
Many people think se in sebae is related to sae hae, since sae hae means new year. In fact, sebae is a unique word used only on new year’s day.
Se (세 歲) means years/elders, as opposed to sae (새 新) which means new.
Bae (배 拜) means pay respect / visit / salute / bow. Therefore sebae means to bow to elders, and sae hae (새해 新年) means new year.
4. Don’t forget the cash
When receiving sebae from children, the elders should prepare some cash to give the bowers. Typically the amount depends on the age of the bower with younger ones receiving less than the older ones.
5. Put sebae cash into a luck pouch called bok jumoni
Bok Jumoni 복주머니 are cute and colorful silk pouches loved by children in Korea. Children hang this small bag on the cloth belt on the waist of their hanbok and use it to put all the money in the bag after bowing to elders on Korean new year’s day.
6. Wear seol bim for sebae
Koreans have a tradition called seol bim 설빔 which is the custom of wearing new clothes on new year’s day. This tradition was particularly important for the working class as many of them only got one set of new clothes per year, which they wore almost every day of the year.
7. All relatives are fair game for sebae but kun jip is where to gather
Children love seollal (new year’s day) because they can make the rounds to all their uncles and aunts in addition to parents and grandparents to perform sebae thus receiving lots of bok, aka luck, aka cash. But if you are unsure where to gather for the main celebration and feast, tradition dictates that the oldest uncle’s house called kun jip be the gathering place.
8. There is a beloved Korean New Year song
The Korean New Year Song includes all the beloved traditions and is taught to Korean children in schools. Watch the video below and see all the Korean new year traditions in action.
Korean New Year Song lyrics:
까치 까치 설날은 어저께고요 | Magpie magpie’s new year’s day was yesterday (The last day of the previous year is called magpie’s new year),
우리 우리 설날은 오늘이래요 | Our our new year’s day is today.
곱고 고운 댕기도 내가 그리고 | Lovely lovely hair ribbon I tie on myself,
새로 사온 신발도 내가 신어요 | I will also wear my brand new shoes.
아버지와 어머니 우리들의 절받기 좋아하세요 | Mother and father enjoy receiving our sebae bows.
Learn more about Korean New Year traditions.
Hong Taek Chung is a writer and cinephile residing in Elkins Park, PA, with his wife and college sweetheart, Kay. A graduate of Seoul National University, he served as the first chairman of the board of MoreBank (now Bank of Princeton) and fifth chairman of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce in NYC.