On top of the major holidays celebrated worldwide, did you know Korea has its unique holidays as well? These holidays are considered a big part of Korean culture, stemming from ancient and traditional practices. Let’s dive in to find out why these four are hailed as major national holidays in Korea.
Seollal (설날), or Lunar New Year’s day
Seollal is a celebration typically falling at the start of the year as it hails the first day of the Korean lunar calendar. Seollal celebrations usually last up to 3 days, one day before and a day after in addition to the day itself. Most of the time, the celebrations would coincide with Chinese New Year, celebrated widely by Singaporeans.
During Seollal, many Korean families will embark on a trip to gather in the home of their most senior male relative in order to pay respects both to their elders and bygone ancestors as well as exchange gifts and well wishes among each other. The staple celebratory events in these festivities include ancestral rites, folk games, and feasting on traditional delicacies.
Most will celebrate Seollal in a stepwise fashion. First, family members will participate in a ritual dedicated to revering one’s ancestor called “charye”. In charye, female relatives are tasked with preparing the food to be offered whilst the males are the ones in charge of serving them to their ancestors. In the final step of the ritual called “eumbok”, both parties then convene to partake in the feasting of the food and thus gain the blessings of their ancestors for the rest of the year. Traditionally, such fare will include tteokguk, a dish with rice cakes, beef, eggs, and vegetables served in a rich, clear broth. This dish symbolises the starting of the year on a clean slate.
Families will also make it a point to dress in seolbim, a special kind of hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) during this holiday. When not eating together or catching up with one another, families oft have fun with games such as GoStop and Yut Nori. Another tradition that involves the children and elders of the family is called sebae, wherein the young ones pay their respects to their elderly by deeply bowing to them. The family elders would then offer their blessing and sometimes a Seollal gift in the form of sebaetdon, similar to red packets received on Chinese New Year.
Dano (단오), or Spring Festival
An upcoming major festival celebrated in Korea would be Dano, celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of Korea’s lunar calendar. Otherwise known as the spring festival, Dano originates from people in the villages offering up their wishes for a good harvest.
This festival includes plenty of age-old customs, one of the notable ones of which is the danojang. In this tradition, the women cut and boil roots of sweet flags, locally called changpo, and then wash their hair in the water as a way to enhance its lustre. Aside from being boiled, these roots are also worn by men and women around their waist and pinned in their hair, respectively, with the belief that its distinct aroma will repel evil spirits away from them.
Dano is also host to plenty of fun games and competitions for men and women. Geunetagi, which is essentially a swinging competition, is mainly reserved for women with the objective of swinging higher than the rest. Ssireum, a wrestling match meant for the males (but is also now enjoyed by females), gained its popularity back then due to the chance of winning a bull if you emerged as the winner. On the edible side of things, locals will also enjoy snacks like surichitteok and ssuktteok, both herb rice cakes, along with cherry punch during the festivities.
Chuseok (추석), or Mid-Autumn Festival
Chuseok is also a harvest festival that’s celebrated in mid-autumn to commemorate the bountiful harvests. On this day, when the moon is believed to be the biggest and brightest, families gather together to enjoy food and give thanks to their ancestors.
The charye tradition returns in this festival, and the tables become filled with special foods once more and with the addition of freshly harvested rice and fruits. One such special food is songpyeon, a rice cake made of finely grounded harvested rice and kneaded into round shapes often filled with sesame seeds, red beans or other similar fillings.
Visiting ancestral graves and performing rites like seongmyo and beolcho is also a common practice among Koreans. Traditional folk games played during Chuseok would include ganggangsullae and bullfighting. However, these games have died down due to modernisation, and most prefer to enjoy the festivities with family and friends.
Hansik, or the cold food festival, is celebrated 105 days after the winter solstice. Families typically hold worship or memorial services to the mountain spirits and ancestors as the evil spirits are believed to be inactive on this date.
Hansik also marks the start of the farming season and is considered the date most suitable for planting trees. Hansik itself is adopted from an ancient Chinese practice, and on this date, people will eat their food cold without using fire for daily activities for some time.
Korean festivals, though not well known unless you’re a local, actually hold deep meanings. Most of them are celebrations that stem from or are related to farming and harvesting practices of natives past. If you are looking to travel to Korea after the pandemic, do note these dates so you can join in on the festivities as well!
Since travelling to Korea is still largely restricted for everyone’s safety, why don’t you take this as an opportunity to enrol in a Korean language course today? If you’re an avid fan of all things Korea, then learning the language is certainly the best way to uncover more about Korea and its culture and people as a whole.
With the help of a reputable Korean language school in Singapore, you’re guaranteed to achieve proficiency in Korean and, with your newfound understanding, discover the true meanings of Korea’s various rites and holidays that no amount of translation could ever hope to accomplish.