The New Year is almost upon us. But wait, didn’t we just ring in 2012 a couple weeks ago? How can it be New Year again so soon? The answer is that Korea has two calendar systems, one governed by the Sun and one governed by the Moon, and each of them has its own year-end holiday.

Marking the Year of the Black Dragon, this year’s New Year begins on Monday, January 23. The Korean Lunar New Year, called “Seollal” or “Gujeong,” usually falls on the second new moon after winter solstice. Seollal is Korea’s largest holiday, marking the date when the Lunar calendar rolls over into the New Year. Although Korea adopted the Gregorian solar calendar in 1895, the lunar calendar is still commonly used to mark special days of the year and in age reckoning.

Last year, children at Hyundai Foreign School in Dong-gu, Ulsan are shown how to pay respect to their ancestors in a Lunar New Year rite (photo: Yonhap News).

This year is considered especially lucky, as it will be the Year of the Black Dragon, an event that occurs only every 60 years. Although the Year of the Dragon occurs every twelve years, only every fifth occurrence is the Black Dragon, making a sexagenary cycle. Korean people consider the Year of the Black Dragon to be a year of luck and good fortune, believing the Black Dragon ascends to Heaven at the end of its life. The last Year of the Black Dragon was from January 27, 1952 to February 13, 1953.

The presence of the Black Dragon is making itself known in Korean society in many ways. The birth rate is expected to rise, as parents will want their children to be born in such an auspicious year. Department stores are selling baby products decorated with the Black Dragon. People born in previous Years of the Dragon can receive discounts at a variety of businesses, including I’Park department stores and Red Cap Tour. LG introduced a Dragon Wine which has become a popular selling item. Even Baskin-Robbins is getting in on the action, offering Flying Dragon ice cream cakes.

Byeokgolje Reservoir in Jeollabuk-do (North Jeolla Province) is gaining attention this year for its twin statues of 15-meter-tall dragons, one white and one black (photo: Yonhap News).

To mark the beginning of this year of good fortune, Korea has a four-day long weekend. This is traditionally done to allow Koreans a full day before and after the holiday to commute to their hometowns and meet with their families. Because of the great number of commuters on the road, traffic delays might make an otherwise short trip across the peninsula into full-day pandemonium.


Last year, a reported 30.88 million people hit the road during the Lunar New Year, which fell on February 3. This year, the Korea Transport Institute estimates that 31.54 million people will be on the move during the long weekend, based on a survey of 6,800 households. On Monday alone, an estimated 6.47 million people will be in transit.



“It takes double or triple the usual amount of time,” says Choi Dongyoung, an office worker living in Seoul who plans to visit his parents in Chuncheon this weekend. “Sometimes, I take a work day off in order to avoid the period when people usually go back to their hometowns.”

Traffic during the holiday will inevitably be one-way, with an exodus out of Seoul before the day, and a return back to Seoul after (photo: Yonhap News).

 Choi’s colleague Lee Jangwook, originally from the southeastern city of Ulsan, describes the annual holiday commute in one word: “Terrible.” Due to traffic jams on the highway, he says the trip can take up to twelve hours. These days, though, his parents live in Seoul, so he won’t have to make the long trip, which comes as a great relief.


“For me, it’s okay,” says Lee Sujin, who is heading to Ulsan for the holiday. “I think it is acceptable even to spend so much time on the road, since family can be reunited and there aren’t many chances to do that.” In order to escape the holiday rush, she plans to catch a midnight bus.


Once the family is assembled, there are many traditions and rituals associated with the holiday. There can be a great deal of cooking associated with the holiday, and often women must spend a great deal of time in the kitchen. Men spend the holidays with their families, but married women are expected to visit their in-laws and help with the cooking. Some less traditional families will visit both homes if it’s convenient enough.


“I will prepare food stuff and cook some traditional food with my family,” says Choi. His family plans to have a feast on the eve of Seollal, with traditional Korean food and alcohol.


The main tradition of Seollal is called Charye, which is performed early in the morning. An offering of food is sacrificed for ancestors, and family members pay their respects by bowing twice. Afterward, the food is usually eaten to close the ritual.


During a Charye ritual, food is offered to ancestors, and participants must make two deep bows (photo: Yonhap News).

Another morning ritual is Sebae, in which younger people pay their respects to their elder relatives by performing one deep bow and saying “Sae hae bok mani badusaeyo” which translates to “Receive many new year blessings.” They are then rewarded with pocket money and words of wisdom.


It is also common to eat tteokguk, a soup with slices of rice cake, to signify advancing one year in age. Although in modern times one’s official age is calculated based on birthday, most Koreans still mark the advancing in age at the start of the Lunar New Year.


After the ceremonies are finished, family members typically play traditional games with each other. The most popular is Yut, a board game involving sticks rather than dice. Choi looks forward to playing Go-Stop, a Korean card game played with Japanese Hanafuda cards. Traditionally, males flew kites on this day, and females played on a see-saw.


Once the festivities are wrapped up, everyone will begin the long, slow journey home. The day after Seollal is a statutory holiday specifically to give everyone ample time to get back to their cities. This holiday mass migration will repeat again at the end of September when everyone makes the trip again for Chuseok, the Korean harvest festival.

By Jon Dunbar Editor