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The Traditional Korean Holidays: Seollal and Chuseok

This article delves into the heart of Korea's most important traditional holidays, Seollal and Chuseok. We will explore their history, customs, and how they are celebrated today. Understanding these festivals gives insight into Korean culture and the values that have been passed down through generations. Join us as we uncover the unique aspects of these beloved holidays.

What is Seollal?

They are sharing a meal together

Seollal, also known as the Lunar New Year, is one of the most significant traditional holidays in Korea. It marks the first day of the lunar calendar and is typically celebrated for three days: the day before Seollal, Seollal itself, and the day after.

History and Significance Seollal has been celebrated for centuries and is deeply rooted in Confucian traditions, which emphasize filial piety and respect for ancestors. This holiday is a time for families to come together, pay respects to their ancestors, and usher in the new year with hopes for prosperity and good health.

Customs and Traditions

  • Charye (차례): On the morning of Seollal, families perform ancestral rites called charye. A table is set with an assortment of food offerings, and family members bow to their ancestors, seeking blessings for the new year.
  • Sebae (세배): After the charye ceremony, younger family members perform sebae, a deep traditional bow, to their elders. In return, they receive sebaetdon (New Year's money) and words of wisdom and encouragement.
  • Food: Eating tteokguk (rice cake soup) is a major tradition during Seollal. Koreans believe that consuming this soup will add a year to their age.
  • Games and Activities: Traditional games such as yutnori (a board game played with sticks) are popular during Seollal. These activities foster a sense of unity and joy among family members.

Modern Celebrations While the essence of Seollal remains unchanged, modern celebrations often incorporate new elements. Many families take advantage of the long holiday to travel domestically or internationally. Despite these changes, the core values of family, respect, and renewal remain central to Seollal celebrations.

What is Chuseok?

We are visiting the family graves for Chuseok

Chuseok, often referred to as Korean Thanksgiving Day, is another major traditional holiday in Korea. Celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, Chuseok coincides with the harvest season and is a time for Koreans to give thanks for the year's bountiful harvest.

History and Significance Chuseok has ancient roots, dating back to the Silla Dynasty (57 BC – 935 AD). It was originally a time when communities came together to celebrate the harvest, pay respects to ancestors, and share food. The festival is known as "Hangawi," which means the "great middle of autumn."

Customs and Traditions

  • Charye (차례): Similar to Seollal, families perform ancestral rites during Chuseok. They prepare a table with newly harvested grains, fruits, and other foods to honor their ancestors.
  • Seongmyo (성묘): This involves visiting the graves of ancestors to tidy the gravesites and perform rituals. It is a way to show respect and maintain a connection with past generations.
  • Songpyeon (송편): These half-moon-shaped rice cakes are a staple of Chuseok. Made from rice flour and filled with ingredients such as sesame seeds, chestnuts, and beans, they are steamed over pine needles, giving them a unique flavor and aroma.
  • Folk Games: Chuseok is also a time for traditional games and dances. Activities such as ganggangsullae (a circle dance performed by women under the full moon), ssireum (Korean wrestling), and yutnori are common during the festivities.

Modern Celebrations In contemporary Korea, Chuseok remains a time for family reunions and traditional ceremonies. However, modern elements such as traveling, entertainment, and enjoying a variety of foods have been incorporated. Despite these changes, the core values of gratitude and familial respect continue to be central to Chuseok celebrations.

Customs and Traditions of Seollal

Everyone is gathered together, praying to their ancestors

Seollal, the Lunar New Year, is rich with customs and traditions that reflect Korean values and cultural heritage. Here, we delve deeper into these practices to understand their significance and how they are celebrated.

Ancestral Rites (Charye) Charye is a vital part of Seollal. On the morning of Seollal, families set a table with various offerings including rice, fruits, fish, meat, and traditional rice cakes. The arrangement and types of food can vary, but the purpose is to honor ancestors and seek their blessings for the coming year. This ceremony reinforces the importance of family ties and respect for past generations.

Detailed Charye Process:

  • Preparation: Families clean their homes thoroughly and prepare the ceremonial foods.
  • Setting the Table: The table is set with specific rules regarding the placement of foods. For example, rice and soup are placed on the west end of the table, while fruits and desserts are placed on the east.
  • The Ceremony: Family members, dressed in traditional hanbok, bow deeply to their ancestors, expressing gratitude and reverence.
Food ItemPlacementSignificance
RiceWestRepresents purity and the staple of the meal
SoupWestComplements the rice
MeatCenterRepresents the main dish
FruitsEastSymbolizes bounty and the harvest
Rice CakesEastSymbolizes prosperity and good fortune

Sebae (세배) Sebae is another important tradition where younger family members bow to their elders. This deep bow, often accompanied by the phrase "새해 복 많이 받으세요" (Saehae bok mani badeuseyo, meaning "Please receive a lot of blessings in the New Year"), is a gesture of respect and a wish for a prosperous year. Elders, in return, give sebaetdon (New Year's money) and words of wisdom.

Food: Tteokguk (떡국) Eating tteokguk, a soup made with sliced rice cakes, is a significant tradition. It is believed that consuming this soup allows one to gain a year in age. The white rice cakes symbolize purity and a fresh start.

Recipe for Tteokguk:

  1. Ingredients: Sliced rice cakes, beef or chicken broth, soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil, green onions, eggs, and gim (seaweed).
  2. Preparation: Boil the broth, add the rice cakes, and let them cook until they float. Add seasonings and garnish with sliced egg and gim.

Traditional Games and Activities Seollal is also a time for playing traditional games, which foster family bonding and fun. Some popular games include:

  • Yutnori (윷놀이): A traditional board game played with four wooden sticks. It's a game of strategy and luck, enjoyed by all ages.
  • Jegichagi (제기차기): A game similar to hacky sack, where players kick a weighted object called jegi.
  • Neolttwigi (널뛰기): A seesawing game traditionally played by women.

Modern Celebrations While traditional customs remain, modern Seollal celebrations often include travel, both domestically and internationally, as families use the long holiday for vacations. Despite this, many still observe the key traditions, blending the old with the new.

Customs and Traditions of Chuseok

During Chuseok, everyone gathers to make food together

Chuseok, celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, is one of Korea's most cherished holidays. Often compared to Thanksgiving, it is a time for family reunions, honoring ancestors, and giving thanks for the autumn harvest.

Ancestral Rites (Charye) Just like during Seollal, Charye is an essential part of Chuseok. Families prepare a table with offerings from the year's harvest, including freshly harvested rice and fruits. This ritual symbolizes gratitude to ancestors for their blessings and ensures continued prosperity.

Detailed Charye Process:

  • Preparation: Families gather and prepare various foods, including freshly harvested grains, fruits, and traditional dishes.
  • Setting the Table: The table is meticulously arranged with the harvested food items.
  • The Ceremony: Family members, often dressed in hanbok, perform bows to honor their ancestors.
Food ItemPlacementSignificance
Fresh RiceCenterRepresents the new harvest
FruitsEastSymbolizes abundance and prosperity
MeatCenterMain dish offering
Rice CakesEastSymbolizes good fortune and prosperity
VegetablesVariousRepresents health and growth

Visiting Ancestors' Graves (Seongmyo) Seongmyo, the practice of visiting and tending to ancestral graves, is a key tradition during Chuseok. Families travel to their ancestral burial sites to clean the area and perform rituals. This practice reinforces respect and remembrance for past generations.

Songpyeon (송편) Songpyeon, half-moon-shaped rice cakes, are a hallmark of Chuseok. These rice cakes are made from rice flour and filled with ingredients such as sesame seeds, chestnuts, red beans, and more. Families gather to make songpyeon together, a process that symbolizes unity and collaboration.

Recipe for Songpyeon:

  1. Ingredients: Rice flour, various fillings (e.g., sesame seeds, chestnuts, red beans), pine needles for steaming.
  2. Preparation: Mix rice flour with water to form a dough, shape it into small discs, add fillings, and shape into half-moons. Steam the rice cakes over pine needles for a unique aroma and flavor.

Traditional Games and Activities Chuseok is also a time for traditional games and activities, which vary by region but share a common theme of community and celebration.

  • Ganggangsullae (강강술래): A traditional circle dance performed by women under the full moon, symbolizing unity and joy.
  • Ssireum (씨름): Korean traditional wrestling, where participants grapple to bring each other to the ground.
  • Folk Games: Other games include archery, tug-of-war, and yutnori.

Modern Celebrations While the essence of Chuseok remains rooted in tradition, modern celebrations have evolved. Many Koreans use the extended holiday to travel, both domestically and internationally. However, the core practices of family gatherings, Charye, and making songpyeon continue to be widely observed.

Modern Celebrations of Seollal and Chuseok

Nowadays, relatives meet online

In today's Korea, the celebrations of Seollal and Chuseok have evolved, incorporating both traditional elements and modern practices. While the core customs remain, many families adapt their celebrations to fit contemporary lifestyles.

Modern Seollal Celebrations Seollal, or Lunar New Year, is still marked by traditional rituals, but modern influences are evident. Here are some ways in which Seollal is celebrated today:

  1. Travel and Family Reunions

    • Domestic Travel: Seollal is one of the busiest travel periods in Korea. Many people return to their hometowns to spend the holiday with their families, causing significant traffic congestion and crowded public transportation.
    • International Travel: Some families take advantage of the long holiday to travel abroad. Popular destinations include nearby countries like Japan, China, and Southeast Asian countries.
  2. Simplified Ancestral Rites

    • While many families continue to perform Charye, some opt for simplified versions of the ritual due to busy schedules or smaller family sizes. This can involve fewer dishes or shorter ceremonies.
  3. Gift-Giving

    • It has become common to exchange gifts during Seollal. Popular gifts include premium food items, gift sets of toiletries, and health supplements. Department stores and online retailers offer a wide variety of Seollal gift options.
  4. Festive Foods

    • Traditional foods like tteokguk are still enjoyed, but families may also include modern dishes or takeout food in their celebrations. The emphasis remains on sharing a meal together.
  5. Digital Celebrations

    • With the advent of technology, some families use video calls to connect with relatives who are unable to travel. Social media also plays a role in sharing holiday greetings and photos.

Modern Chuseok Celebrations Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving, continues to be a significant holiday, with both traditional and modern aspects.

  1. Family Gatherings and Travel

    • Similar to Seollal, Chuseok is a major travel period. Families gather to celebrate together, and many people visit their ancestral homes. The mass migration during Chuseok leads to heavy traffic and packed transportation systems.
  2. Simplified Charye and Seongmyo

    • While traditional Charye and Seongmyo are still practiced, some families simplify these rituals. This can include shorter ceremonies or the use of prepared food items instead of homemade offerings.
  3. Gift-Giving and Shopping

    • Gift-giving is also a part of Chuseok. Common gifts include fruit baskets, high-quality meat sets, and traditional sweets. Retailers offer special promotions and gift sets for the holiday.
  4. Cultural Events and Festivals

    • Many cities and towns host cultural events and festivals during Chuseok. These can include traditional music and dance performances, craft fairs, and food festivals. Such events provide opportunities for both locals and tourists to experience Korean culture.
  5. Modern Entertainment

    • With the extended holiday, many people engage in various forms of entertainment such as watching movies, playing games, or attending amusement parks. Television stations also air special holiday programs and movies.

Comparison Table: Modern Elements of Seollal and Chuseok

TravelDomestic and international travelDomestic travel to hometowns, some international trips
Ancestral RitesSimplified CharyeSimplified Charye and Seongmyo
Gift-GivingPremium food items, gift setsFruit baskets, meat sets, traditional sweets
Festive FoodsTraditional and modern dishesTraditional foods like songpyeon, modern dishes
Cultural EventsLimited, more family-centeredVarious cultural festivals and events
EntertainmentGames, movies, online connectionsFestivals, performances, modern entertainment


Nowadays, relatives meet online cam

The traditional Korean holidays of Seollal and Chuseok are not just cultural celebrations but also vital aspects of Korean heritage that bind families together and honor the past. These festivals have adapted over time, blending ancient rituals with modern practices, yet their core values remain unchanged.

Seollal, the Lunar New Year, is a time for family reunions, ancestral rites, and starting the year with hopes of prosperity and health. Traditional customs such as Charye, Sebae, and eating tteokguk are integral parts of this celebration, although modern influences like international travel and digital connections are increasingly common.

Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving, similarly centers on family gatherings and giving thanks for the harvest. The traditions of Charye, Seongmyo, and making songpyeon reflect deep respect for ancestors and gratitude for nature’s bounty. Modern Chuseok celebrations incorporate cultural festivals, simplified rituals, and contemporary entertainment, highlighting the dynamic nature of Korean culture.

Understanding Seollal and Chuseok provides a window into the values and traditions that shape Korean society. These holidays are a testament to the enduring importance of family, respect, and gratitude in Korean life.


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