How Do Koreans Celebrate the New Year?

Learn the customs and festivities linked to the holiday

Seollal (Lunar New Year's Day)
Traditional Cakes Served to Celebrate the Lunar New Year. Yun Chung / Getty Images

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 on the calendar.

New Year's Day is a family holiday, and the lunar New Year is a three-day event in Korea. Most people try to return to their family homes to spend time 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.

Korean New Year: Traditions and Customs

Korean New Year's celebrations begin with everyone wearing traditional dress (hanbok). Since the Korean focus is 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 doing 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 for New Year's

After seh bae, the traditional New Year's meal is a soup of thinly sliced rice cakes (duk gook) or a variation with dumplings. 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 gook. 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 gook, 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), younger generations playing video or board games together, 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.