Language Matters February 2008: Korean New Year

Dear Language Friend,

I’m sure you have all heard about Chinese New Year, but perhaps you did not know that the Koreans celebrate KOREAN NEW YEAR!

In this Newsletter we will introduce you to the customs of a Korean New Year. We give our thanks to our Korean colleague Jy Hye Kim for the contribution to this Newsletter.

Lenka de Graafova, Managing Director. Thanks for reading.

Koreans do celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1st, but the lunar New Year is in fact more important and more popular in Korea. This Korean New Year (Seol-nal) is the first day of the Korean lunar Calendar (generally between January 12 and February 19), and the celebrations last for three days. Koreans celebrate lunar New Year on the second of the three days; on the first day the women need to prepare everything, especially food, for the following day. All family members get together and celebrate the arrival of the New Year.

Religious Service For Their Ancestors


This depends on the family’s religion and tradition, but most families perform a religious service for their ancestors in the morning. This entails the women preparing about 44 different kinds of food over the course of more than two days. However, you cannot put just anything on the table.

Food that is not allowed on the table during the religious service:

– Any spicy food
– Soups (interestingly, only the solid ingredients of soups are served, not the liquid)
– Fish with scales that have the word ‘chi’ in their name (e.g., gal-chi, kkong-chi, sam-chi)
– Red-beans
– Peaches

These particular foods are banned because Koreans believe that they will drive away their ancestors.

To place the appropriate food on the table, again you have to follow well-established rules.

The order of arrangement:

– 1st row: an empty bowl with a spoon on top, liqueur glass and rice
– 2nd row: fish on the east side (the face of the fish should be on the right side), meat on the west side
– 3rd row: soups
– 4th row: slices of dried meat seasoned with spices
– 5th row: from left to right, jujube (a dark red fruit also called a Chinese date), pear, other fruits (red fruits should be on the right side), a cake made from wheat flour, oil, and honey, and a glutinous rice cracker fried in oil

You are also permitted to place your ancestor’s favourite food near the 1st row. After arranging the food on the table, Koreans don traditional clothing called the han-bok (as seen in the image on the right side). It is not required to wear han-bok if you don’t have one, but you still need to dress neatly. When everything is organized, Koreans kneel and bow to their ancestors.

Rice-cake Soup

Once the religious service for the ancestors is over, Koreans eat rice-cake soup (Tteok-guk) for breakfast. This is prepared with slices of rice cake, beef, eggs, etc. (as in the picture to the left). One of the reasons why Koreans eat rice-cake soup is because they believe that if you eat one bowl, you will become one year older. Those children that want to grow up quickly eat as many bowls of this soup as they can! The round, white rice-cake represents purity as well as a coin or wealth and is therefore considered as a blessing for the New Year.

New Year’s Bow

After eating the rice-cake soup, children kneel and bow to their elders, and say ‘sae hae bok man e bat eu se yo! (Happy New Year!)’ Then they receive lucky money from their elders. Family members wish each other good fortune and exchange gifts.

Do you see the difference? In addition, men should be standing in the east and women in the west when they bow to their elders.

Traditional Games

After the ceremony, family members spend time together. They usually eat, talk, and play traditional New Year games, such as the following:

– Yut nol e (four-stick game)

 This traditional board game can be played by many people or groups, but the number of participants should be even. To play, you toss four sticks in the air and count how many flat sides and curved sides are face up. This will tell you how many steps you can move on the board. The first person or team that reaches the destination wins!

– Nul ttwi gi (seesaw)

This is different from the seesaw that we all know because instead of sitting down on either side of the board, Koreans stand on it! They jump up so that the rider on the other side sails up in the air. Usually females play this game.

– Yun Nal lee gi (kite flying)

Koreans enjoy flying kites on major holidays. The traditional Korean kite, yun, is made with bamboo sticks and Korean paper.

– Hwa too (cards)

The most popular game among elders is ‘hwa-too (go-stop)’. This is a gambling game and people bet small change for fun. It can be played by three or more people and can become very exciting.

So how would you like to try some of these games? They are great for socializing and fun to play.

Nowadays, most Koreans are too busy to interact with their relatives, but Korean New Year is a great chance to catch up. The Korean New Year is not only a means to greet another year; it’s a time to share happiness and realize what ‘family’ means.