Korean Lunar New Year Celebrations

Traditions, Family Customs, and Foods

Korean New Year Festival lanterns

 Douglas MacDonald

Koreans celebrate New Year's Day at the start of the year on the lunar calendar (Solnal) and have done so for thousands of years. However, many Koreans now also celebrate the New Year at the start of the solar calendar (January 1) as Westerners do. Thus, many people in Korea and abroad celebrate New Year's Day twice. But it is the Lunar New Year that is one of the most important Korean holidays (along with Christmas) on the calendar.

A 3-Day Celebration

The Lunar New Year is a three-day event in Korea and New Year's Day is a family holiday. Most people spend time at their family homes to celebrate with relatives and to honor ancestors. The solar New Year is also a family day for Koreans, even for those that live in the West where it is usually more traditionally celebrated with friends. Even in the West, Koreans have opportunities to honor lunar New Year. Western cities with large populations of Asians typically have lunar new year festivities.

Traditions and Customs

Korean New Year's celebrations begin with everyone wearing traditional dress (hanbok). Since the Korean focus is on starting the New Year by reconnecting with family and ancestors, the most ceremonial ritual on New Year's Day is seh bae (a deep bow to the floor). Traditionally, families would begin by performing seh bae to deceased ancestors and making food and drink offerings to the spirits of ancestors (charae).

Depending on the family, the seh bae time may just instead start with grown-ups and children bowing and paying respect to their elders, beginning with deep bows to the oldest living generation. Children receive gifts of money and words of wisdom for the New Year, and everyone wishes each other blessings for the New Year (saehae bok manee badesaeyo).

Traditional Foods

After seh bae, the traditional New Year's meal is a soup of thinly sliced rice cakes (duk guk) or a variation with dumplings such as the recipe for Korean dumpling (mandoo). Because everyone turns a year older with the start of each New Year (and not on their birthday), many people tell their children that they can't get older unless they've eaten some duk guk. Some type of duk (rice cakes, ttuk, or tteok) is enjoyed at every important Korean celebration, and the white rice cakes in the soup represent a clean start and new beginning for the New Year.

Following the breakfast or lunchtime meal of duk guk, it's time for a more casual family time. “Family time” obviously varies by family and could mean traditional outdoor games like kite-flying or noltigi, Korean board games like yutnori (a board game that involves stick-tossing), video or board games for younger generations, karaoke, or just conversation and relaxation. If family members are not all gathering in one place, then it also customary for the younger generations to visit older uncles, aunts, and relatives that live close enough and give wishes for the New Year.