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seollal | charye table set up with traditional korean foods

Celebrated in both North AND South Korea, Seollal or Korean Lunar New Year is one of the country’s most significant national holidays. In the 2023 Year of the Rabbit, the holiday period lasts from January 21st to 24th.

seollal charye table

This is one of Korea’s most important traditional holidays.

In this guide, you’ll learn:

  • why Seollal is important
  • when and how Korean Lunar New Year is celebrated
  • traditional rites, games, and foods specific to Seollal
  • what to expect if you’re traveling to South Korea during the holiday period

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When is Seollal | 설날?

SEOLLAL: January 22nd, 2023 | PUBLIC HOLIDAY DATES: January 21st – 24th, 2023

Seollal is based on the Lunar Calendar, so the exact date varies every year. It coincides with the second new moon, after the winter solstice, and usually falls in January or February.

The date of Seollal is based on the Lunar Calendar.

All you REALLY need to know, is that Seollal itself falls on Sunday, January 22nd in 2023, with public holiday dates stretching from Saturday, January 21st to Tuesday, January 24th.

What to Expect during Korean Lunar New Year

If your trip to South Korea coincides with Seollal, it’s best to stay as close to home base as possible during the holiday dates. These are days off for all Koreans, and there’s a mass exodus into and out of Seoul and other major cities, as people reunite with their families all over the country.

korean lunar new year | gyeongbokgung palace

It’s best to stay in one place during the Seollal holiday.

That means that KTX high speed trains and many long-distance buses have been booked weeks in advance, and traffic on highways is incredibly backed up. This is NOT the time to attempt to travel between Busan and Seoul, since it can take twice as long as normal.

Despite the national days off, you won’t have trouble finding places to eat or shop, with major malls, restaurant chains, and popular tourist sites open to the public. Smaller, family-run restaurants and businesses will likely be shut down for the weekend though.

Holiday Preparations

While the day of Seollal itself is incredibly quiet, the days leading up to it are a buzz of activity. Traditional markets and stores are packed with people shopping for food and gifts to take back to their hometowns. And don’t even talk to me about Costco – which I made the mistake of going to yesterday.

seollal | seoul subway during korean lunar new year

Yes! Subways really are this empty during Seollal in Seoul.

It’s definitely the chaos before the calm though, because once all the preparations are complete, major cities turn into ghost towns. During Seollal, you’ll be surprised by eerily empty subways, deserted sidewalks, and silent cafes.

Seollal Traditions

Along with Chuseok, Seollal is one of Korea’s most significant traditional holidays, marking the first day of the Korean Lunar New Year.

seollal | seoul lantern festival year of the rabbit 2023

Seollal marks the first day of Lunar New Year. 2023 is the year of the rabbit!

Unlike Christmas in Korea though, which is a holiday more for couples and friends, Seollal is an occasion when family gathers – traditionally at the home of the oldest male – to honour their ancestors, play folk games, and eat a special meal together.

The holiday is full of meaningful traditions, rites, and rituals, with most performed to honour a family’s ancestors and prepare for a brand new year. Of course, there’s also plenty of fun and food too.

seollal | Neolttwigi or Korean seesaw

Neolttwigi is a fun Seollal game © Robert at Picasa (CC BY 3.0)

It’s important to note that as time passes, Korean Lunar New Year rituals are modernizing. There’s an extreme division of labour to the occasion that’s frankly quite patriarchal, so this is a welcome thing in my opinion. Some families now choose to forgo these practices for a trip overseas, or valuable time together instead.

Charye | 차례

Charye is perhaps the most meaningful part of Seollal. It’s a form of ancestral worship that is practiced on major holidays like Korean Lunar New Year and Chuseok. This expression of gratitude to your ancestors involves a highly structured Charye Table stacked with specially prepared foods, fruits, and drinks.

seollal | charye table set up with traditional korean foods

The Charye Table for Seollal is highly structured.

Traditionally, the Charye Table is prepared by female members of the family and then offered to the family’s ancestors by men. In the final stage of Charye, called eumbok | 음복, all members of the family enjoy the food together, and receive the ancestor’s blessing for the coming year.

Sebae | 세배

Sebae is a traditional Korean New Year’s Day greeting, which consists of a deep bow, to your parents, grandparents, or any other seniors. It’s common to say “Saehae bok mani badeuseyo” | 새해 복 많이 받으세요 at the same time. It means – I wish you a lot of luck this year.

seollal | sebae

Doing sebae completely wrong, but at least we tried?

Growing up, I didn’t really understand all the meaning behind Seollal, but I definitely understood Sebae. Why? Because I always received an envelope of cash from my parents, after performing it!

Hanbok | 한복

These days, it’s rare to see Koreans wearing hanbok, except for on very special occasions or holidays. Seollal and Chuseok are definitely 2 days when you might see people out and about in their traditional dress.

deoksugung stone wall road in hanbok

Some Koreans wear hanbok on important national holidays.

Seollal is an excellent time to rent a hanbok in Seoul while exploring historical sites, like Gyeongbokgung Palace or Bukchon Hanok Village. If you plan to be outside for an extended period of time though, make sure to wear super warm layers underneath your hanok. Korea in January is very, very cold.

HANBOK RENTAL NEAR GYEONGBOKGUNG PALACE  |  Get into a Seollal in Seoul mood by renting a traditional Korean hanbok. Hanboknam is walking distance to Gyeonbokgung Palace, and has a huge selection of beautiful hanbok to choose from. Check full details here.

Bokjumeoni | 복주머니

seollal | bokjumeoni

Beautiful bukjumeoni © Jeon Han, Korea.net (CC BY 2.0)

Bokjumeoni translates into lucky pockets. During Korean Lunar New Year, these beautifully embroidered bags are given as gifts, or hung on tree branches, or walls for luck. It’s believed that they’ll bring abundance and good fortune to the holder for the coming year.

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bukchon hanok village in seoul

Traditional Foods

There are special foods, prepared along with the Charye Table items on Lunar New Year in Korea. After all, what’s Seollal without a warming bowl of tteokguk?

seollal in seoul | charye table

There are special foods prepared for Seollal along with the Charye Table.

Tteokguk | 떡국

The ingredients in teokguk or rice cake soup have huge symbolic importance. The whiteness of the rice cakes mean cleanliness and purity. Their coin-like shape? Abundance. A bowl of tteokguk is every Koreans way of starting a fresh new year, with the best luck possible.

After consuming a bowl of tteokguk on Seollal, one year is added to your age. It’s common for children to ask for multiple bowls of tteokguk to age “faster,” and for seniors to refuse their bowls to avoid aging. My dad actually says that he “ate a year,” when talking about getting older.

korean lunar new year | tteokguk rice cake soup

There’s no Seollal without tteokguk © Jeon Han, Korea.net (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This unique Korean system of counting age will be scrapped in June of 2023, but until then (and probably for a long time to come) – don’t be surprised when someone asks, “How many bowls of tteokguk have you eaten?” to find out your age.

Jeon | 전

Think of jeon as a Korean pancake. It’s pretty much any ingredient that’s battered and pan-fried. The most common jeon for Seollal are dongtae jeon (pollack fillets) and yugwonjeon (meatballs), but really anything can be made into jeon.

seollal | jeon

Jeon is a staple Seollal food © Dgram, Korea Tourism Organization

Preparing jeon is incredibly time-consuming and labour intensive, and I don’t know many Korean women who don’t dread this Seollal duty. Think of them as you pop every delicious morsel into your mouth.

LEARN TO MAKE KIMCHI  |  What better way to immerse yourself in Korean culture than by learning how to make kimchi and tteokbokki from scratch. Super convenient location in the heart of Myeongdong. Check full details here.

Traditional Games

After all the rites are performed, the food is eaten, and the dishes are washed, it’s time for families to relax with traditional Korean games. These are a staple of any Korean Lunar New Year celebration.

Yut-Nori | 윷놀이

While there are a number of traditional games played during Korean Lunar New Year, Yut-nori is probably the most popular. I grew up playing round after round with my family on New Year’s Day, and it was always a blast.

© Jeon Han, Korea.net (CC BY 2.0)

Yut is a deceptively simple game, involving a game board with several stations and paths. Yut-sticks are used instead of dice. These are thrown to determine how many steps each player can make. Yut-nori can get rowdy with spectators cheering on each side…. but that’s at least half the fun.

Other common folk games played over the holidays include:

  • Jegichagi | 제기차기: hacky-sack
  • Neolttwigi | 널뛰기: standing see-saw, traditionally played by women and girls
  • Yeonnalligi | 연날리기: kite-flying
  • Paengichigi | 파엔기치기: competitive spinning top game
  • Gongginori | 공기놀이: similar to jacks
  • Hwatu | 화투: Go-Stop card game
korean lunar new year | Yeonnalligi

Yeonnalligi or kite-flying is common at Seollal © phareannah (CC BY 2.0)

Things to do during Korean Lunar New Year

If you’re traveling in Korea or based in Seoul during the Seollal holiday, this is definitely one time you’ll want to stay close to the city.

korean lunar new year | bukchon hanok village

Seollal is a good time to explore Seoul’s sites without huge crowds.

I do not recommend planning long-distance trips to other parts of the country (like Busan), where public transit is required to get there. It’s difficult to book tickets, even for Koreans. Besides which, this is actually the perfect time to explore the city, nearby festivals, and winter activities without all the crowds and chaos.

While getting invited to a Korean friend’s house is undoubtedly the best way to experience Seollal authentically, it’s not in the cards for everyone. Not to worry – from traditional performances to unique activities to special discounts for the holiday period, there’s plenty to keep you occupied.

korean lunar new year | lotte world adventure

Attractions like Lotte World have special discounts for Seollal.

Check out my full guide to Seollal in Seoul to find out what to do for Korean Lunar New Year.

Limited Edition Winter Tours in Korea

If you’ve got days off for Seollal, it might be a great opportunity to participate in one of Korea’s special winter festivals or activities. These limited edition winter tours and activities are only available for 2 or 3 months of the year.

seollal | hwacheoneo ice fishing festival

Ice fishing festivals are on during Seollal © Korea Tourism Organization

snow sledding

January is an excellent month for sledding and skiing ⓒ Lee Beomsu, Korea Tourism Organization

Seoul Staycations

In recent years, I’ve booked a hotel in Myeongdong, (even though I live in Seoul) for Korean holidays, so I could get to all the special events and attractions up in that area of Seoul more easily.

I’ve done this for the Lotus Lantern Festival, and also for Chuseok. It was definitely worth the saved transit time, especially with my daughter.

korean lunar new year | myeongdong

Myeongdong is close to many Seollal activities © Camelpress, Korea Tourism Organization

Seollal is actually an ideal time to spend some time in Seoul, particularly if you’re based down in Pyeongtaek or similar areas. Why? Traffic flows in the opposite direction, with roads headed UP to Seoul at the beginning of the holiday dead quiet, and vice versa at the end.

Whatever you decide to do, I wish you all the best for the coming year. 새해 복 많이 받으세요!

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Korean Lunar New Year: Essential Info and FAQs

1
What is the meaning of Seollal? Seollal can be thought of as Korean Lunar New Year. It's a big, family-oriented, national holiday with a date determined anew, every year by the Lunar Calendar.
2
What do Koreans do for Seollal? Seollal is very much a family-oriented holiday, where many Koreans return to their hometowns to pay respects to their ancestors, play traditional folk games, and prepare and eat a huge meal together.
3
Is Seollal the same as Chinese New Year? Seollal is a Korean holiday, but its dates are based on the Lunar Calendar - so it will happen at the same time as Chinese New Year.
4
How do you say ``happy new year`` in Korean? Koreans greet each other on both January 1st, and Lunar New Year, with 새해 복 많이 받으세요 | Saehae bok mani badeuseyo. It means - I wish you a lot of luck in the new year.

Seollal is one of Korea’s most important national holidays. What do you have planned for Korean Lunar New Year?

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