Seollal — Korean Lunar New Year

This past Seollal (Korean Lunar New Year) , was one of the most memorable experiences I have had in Korea. Just before the holiday, my school had an event day for the kindergarten students where we were able to participate in traditional games and activities.

 For the actual holiday, I was invited to visit the home of one of my dear Korean friends.  This was my first time having an inside view to Korean home life, and I will never forget the kindness and hospitality of my hosts. I was able to have the chance to prepare traditional dishes, learn the customs of honoring ancestors and elders, and I even went to a jjimjilbang (Korean bathhouse) with YuJin’s family!

This post is to share my experiences. However, if you are looking for some suggested ways to spend the holiday, please scroll down to the bottom of this article to see my recommendations.

Lunar New Year Event Day @Poly School:

I work for POLY, which is an English kindergarten with an afternoon academy. My students were given a day to celebrate and take a break from their rigorous studies. It was a delightful sight to see all the students dressed in their Hanboks as they arrived in the early morning. One of the little girls had such an impressive headpiece, that it looked like it must have taken hours to prepare.

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 We started the day with a craft activity where we made decorative coin purses. Our craft was meant to look like a “Sonjjang”which is a traditional lucky pouch that goes with Hanbok. On Lunar New Year, the children generally receive money as a gift after they bow to the older members in the family. This special type of bow is called a “sabae”, and it is only performed during formal occasions.

In order to perform a sabae a woman places her right hand above the left hand while men would do the opposite. The hands are then raised to chest level. Next the person should place both hands on the floor as they bend their knees. Then, one would bend the upper body and bow their head. Once their head touches the back of their hand, they stand up by raising their right knee first. Finally, one raises both hands up to their chest before returning their  hands to their natural position.

I tried doing this bow, and I must say that it takes some practice to get right. My students were quick to tease me for my attempts as they demonstrated the proper form.

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After making the coin purses, we took our students to the library to play traditional games. The first game we played was called “Tuho” which is translated to “pitch pot” in English. Tuho is a traditional East Asian game that requires players to throw sticks from a set distance into a barrel or pot. The second game we played was a Korean version of hopscotch. It was really nice to see the students having a such a good time.

 

No activity day or field trip is ever complete without a photo shoot.  My school can get a little excessive about photos when we have event days or field trips. Many times they have professional photographers there, or the Korean teachers are required to document the whole day through their smart phone cameras.  We even have 2 field trips a year, that are designated for only taking the student’s pictures. Its a bit much if you ask me, however, I must admit that I was thrilled to snap a few shots of my class in their adorable Hanboks.

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Celebrating with YuJin’s  Family in Icheon 

After our busy celebration at school, I was excited to spend the next few days on vacation. As I mentioned previously, I had been invited to visit the home of my Korean friend, YuJin. I was eager with anticipation, as I have always yearned for the experience to visit a family’s home while living abroad.

First, let me mention that if you are planning on visiting the home of a Korean family, it is customary to bring a gift. Some popular gifts include ginseng, honey, dried meat or fish, toiletries, and gift basket sets. I decided to bring a box donuts, to kind of make my contribution have a bit of a  western flare while still honoring the customs.

Also, If you are a teacher in Korea, your company could possibly give you a SPAM gift set. For some reason SPAM is treated as a delicacy in Korea, and box sets are actually quite expensive. However, this can come in handy, as it is totally okay to regift it. In my first Lunar New Year, I actually had some Korean friends begging me to spare some of my SPAM before I dropped it off in a donation box. Luckily this year my company gave us wine, so I did not have to worry about how to distribute any boxes of processed mystery meat.

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 I met YuJin at Express Bus Terminal station along with another friend named Jeremy. YuJin made everything very simple, by booking the bus tickets for us in advance. Buses and trains sell out quickly, so it is VERY important to book early.

YuJin’s family is from Icheon which is located in the Geyonggi Province. It is about 90 minutes outside of Seoul, and it is a small town that specializes in ceramics and growing rice. The town is most popular for the Icheon Ceramic’s Village which features over 300 ceramic making firms. I enjoyed the quaint and slower atmosphere of the town. It was a pleasant contrast to the bustle of Seoul.

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YuJin’s mother picked us up at the local bus terminal. Before heading to her house, we stopped by a local market to pick up some fresh produce and meat. I was very curious while watching her mom select the finest cuts of pork meat. Everyone in the town knew each other, so the butcher happily greeted her mother as he assisted her in her selections.

After selecting the meat, YuJin’s mother requested that we help her select some “Gochu” (peppers) for making Ggochi Jeon which is skewered meat and vegetables cooked in savory pancake batter. Her mother told us to select the smallest peppers, as those would work best for the dish we were preparing. As we dug through the barrels of peppers, YuJin told me that the word “Gochu” in Korean has two meaning: penis and pepper. I laughed out loud and was thankful that her mother’s English was limited as we joked about finding the smallest “Gochu.”

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Once we finished at the market, we piled in the car and headed to a neighbor’s house. Yujin and her mother spoke rapidly in Korean while I took the time to zone out and admire the scenery of the rice paddies. While Yujin’s mother went inside the neighbor’s house, we stayed in the car. YuJin explained that the neighbors trade produce during the holidays, so we were there to pick up some chestnuts.

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The rest of the drive was quick after our brief stops at the neighbor’s house. YuJin’s home was cozy and the aromas of the delicious Korea food wafted through the entire house.

YuJin let us put our bags in her brother’s room. Before I could I ask what was next, we were summoned to the living room to begin preparing the food. We began by peeling chestnuts. YuJin warned us that sometimes you might find worms or bugs inside. As soon as the words came out of her mouth, there was a little worm squirming behind the freshly peeled chesnut. I was glad I hadn’t decapitated the poor little guy.

The chesnuts purpose were to be part of the GalbiJim recipe. GalbiJim is a stew made from steamed short ribs, green onions, soy sauce, and other vegetables. It is a popular dish that is generally served to guests during major holidays. The meat and vegetables have a soft texture, almost like a pot roast, while the broth is rich in savory flavors. I have tried this stew in a variety of restaurants, but nothing beat the taste of home cooked food.

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While Jeremy and I busily peeled chestnuts, YuJin’s mother prepared the filling for mandu (Korean dumplings), and Joy chopped the ingredients to make the ggochi jeon. I found it fascinating how her family utilized the floor space for preparing the food. They laid newspapers on the floor and set up portable gas stoves in the living room. It was quite different to the way holidays are prepared  back home. If you watch Korean Dramas or other TV programs, you will noticed that cooking on the living room or dining room floor is very common, especially when making Samgyupsal or grilled meat.

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We spent the entire afternoon preparing one dish after another. My favorite was when we made the mandu. I have always wondered how to make dumplings, so I watched carefully as YuJin’s mother carefully showed me how to press the dough. I spooned the correct mixture of kimchi and pork filling into the dough’s center, then I folded the dough over, while pressing the edges together firmly. My first few attempts looked a little rough, but eventually I got the hang of it. My stomach was beginning to intensely growl as we finished pressing the last dumplings.

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Finally dinner was served. We enjoyed the GalbiJim which had been cooking all day, along with some traditional sides, and of course some steamed mandu! The meal was rewarding after a long day of cooking.

After our meal, YuJin suggested that we go to a jjimjilbang. A jjimjilbang is a Korean bath house and sauna. It is a very relaxing experience, and it is also good for health. At first I thought that only YuJin, Jeremy, and I would go, but then I realized her mom was joining us too.  At first I felt a little awkward about being nude around her mother, but as soon as my tired body hit the warm water, I felt quite relaxed. It was a much smaller jjimjilbang that I am used to, so I was probably one of the first foreigners to ever visit.  At first the other Koreans stared in bewilderment at my presence, but after a while the gave me only smiles and welcoming nods. Luckily I had YuJin to chat with, while Jeremy had to go solo to the Men’s area.

The next day, YuJin’s family came over to share the main celebratory meal. While the woman in the family prepared the dishes. The men gathered to perform the ancestral rites. Korean society is based on Confucian ideals, so it was the duty of the men to honor the ancestors. Food was set on a special table that had incense burning in the center. Inside of the incense box were prayers and messages for the spirits. The purpose of the incense was to call the spirits into the home. Next the men poured Korean rice wine into a cup and moved the cup in a circular motion two times before taking a deep bow.

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The men also took turns reading messages to the spirits. When they were finished, they burned the papers with the messages to send the spirits back home. The purpose of this custom is to express respect and gratitude to the ancestors while also praying for a prosperous new year.  Once this practice was finished, it was time to eat.

The arrangements of the food was a spectacular sight to see. YuJin explained to me that meats and foods with a white color such as pears, rice cakes, and peeled chestnuts were placed to the west end of the table. In contrast, sea food dishes and red items such as kimchi, apples, and dried fruit  placed to the east. Also each plate could only have an odd number of items. It was fascinating to see how the arrangement followed the Confucian ideas of balance and harmony.

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Once it was time to eat, we all sat on the floor around the table. The main dish served was called “tteokguk” which is a soup made with rice cakes, beef, eggs, and vegetables. It is said that eating this soup adds one year to your age. Koreans determine age differently than the rest of the world. When you are born, you are one years old, and then you age again on the Lunar New Year. Though I am 27 in the regular world, I would be 29 “Korean Age”.  Age is an essential part of Korean culture as it determines how you must act towards another.  The year the person is born determines how you must speak and act to that person. There are also terms of endearment that you call friends depending on their age.

It is important to not starting eating, until the older members in the family begin. It is also polite to keep the same pace as the elders, as it is rude to demonstrate that you have finished eating before the older relatives have finished. Even if you are full, you should nibble slowly, until they have established that they are satisfied.

In Korea, it is common to share foods in a communal dish, rather than serving on individual plates. This is because Korean people believe that sharing the food makes relationships closer. Chopsticks are used to eat the side dishes and meat, while spoons are provided for soups and rice.

Finally, many meals are accompanied with soju or some kind of rice wine. It is impolite to serve yourself, so  you should wait for your glass to be filled. If your fellow table member’s glass is empty, you should refill it, especially if you are drinking with someone older. There is actually a superstition that if you pour your own drink, you will be single for three years, so I guess nobody wants to date someone with improper table etiquette. If the members of the table are much older, you should turn to the side when sipping the beverage or taking a shot. Also, to show respect, you should pour and receive drinks by using both hands. Many Koreans do not expect foreigners to abide by these rules, however making the effort is generally highly appreciated.

Having the experience to celebrate a holiday in a Korean home is an experience I will never forget. YuJin and her family were such gracious hosts, and I will forever appreciate their warmness and hospitality.

TRAVEL TIPS AND WAYS TO ENJOY THE HOLIDAY:

Lunar New year, or Seollal, is one of the most anticipated and celebrated holidays in Korea. It is a time for families to gather together to honor their ancestors and share delicious foods.  The holiday demands a lot of preparation, so the Korean peninsula is bustling with activity in the days and weeks before the celebration. If you plan on traveling outside of Seoul, make sure to book tickets in advance as buses, planes, and trains all book up fast. Most local businesses and restaurants close during the holiday. However, amusement parks, national parks, and major business will be open.

If you are looking for something to do around Seoul I suggest checking out Lotte World, wander around Insadong or Geyongbokgung Palace, or head slightly out of the Seoul to Everland. Both Lotte World and Everland offer discount tickets during this time, and crowds are diminished significantly. If you are the outdoorsy type, many foreigners head to the ski slopes or join hiking groups for local mountain adventures. In my first year, I went skiing in  Yangpeyong and checked out the Ice Fishing Festival .  Both were a blast, and I highly recommend either. Check out the facebook groups “When in Korea (WINK)” or “Seoul Hiking Group” to easily book your excursions.

If you have any questions, please leave your comments below! Thanks for reading!

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