Solnal, Korea’s Lunar New Year: How we celebrate

Solnal

‘Solnal’ is the Korean word for Lunar New Year. This event might not be as noticed or important in the west, but this is one of the two most celebrated national holidays in Korea (the other one is called ‘Chuseok’, which is Korean Thanksgiving Day). In this blog, I’ll explain how Koreans usually celebrate Solnal and how Covid-19 is affecting us this year. I hope this will be useful for students who want to get some insights into Korean culture

Solnal is the first day of the lunar calendar. The lunar calendar is a calendar that is based on the monthly cycles of the moon’s phases and is in contrast with the solar calendar that most westerners are familiar with.  Due to globalization, the solar calendar has been more popularized among most Koreans nowadays, but there are still some elders that use the lunar calendar. Regardless, traditional events such as Solnal and Chuseok are celebrated based on the lunar calendar. 

The whole family usually gathers together to catch up with one another and pay respects to their ancestors over this 3-day festival. The traditional way of celebrating Solnal is by performing ancestral rites, eating traditional foods, and playing folk games. This of course takes a lot of preparation, and people get especially busy during Solnal. Most shops will be closed and streets become quiet, however, the roads will have heavy traffic as most of the people return to their hometowns. My advice for tourists is to minimize travelling during this period since it takes two to four times normal travel time.

Solnal; Korean; food
Traditional Solnal celebration food, including Tteokguk, bottom. Photo: Stephen Bugno/Flickr.

Traditionally, Koreans will gather in their ‘Seolbim’ (a special set of Hanbok-Korean traditional clothing- for Solnal) to do “Jesa” (ancestral rites) in the morning. This is done as an expression to pay respect and gratitude to their ancestors. After Jesa, families will eat the ritual food, with the main dish being “Tteokguk”. Tteokguk is a soup with sliced rice cakes and some other ingredients. People eat this soup because the white rice cakes in Tteokguk symbolise starting a new year with a clear mind and body. Then, children will do “Sebae”, which is a deep bow to show respect to the elders of the family. The elders give out money to the children, called “Sebae-don”, in response.

Readers from non-Asian backgrounds might find this way of celebrating unique from their cultures. Unfortunately, it seems like the way of celebrating the new year will not differ between countries this year because of the current pandemic. The Korean government has  banned gathering in a group of 5 or more people for the last few weeks and this will continue during Solnal. Complying with the rules, without meeting in person, I could only celebrate with my family with on phone calls. Things are surely depressing with the virus, but we all know that the best solution is to minimise personal contact and that makes us have not much choice but to bear with it. I hope things get better next year so that families can once again gather without masks and concerns.

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