Unofficial traditional holidays
New Year's Day is an official holiday, meaning that the Korean government says you're supposed to get this one off work. Some Korens celebrate the western New Year with the Solnal rituals (below), and some save them for the Asian Lunar New Year. Some celebrate both. (Why not?)
Solnal is another official holiday. It's also spelled Solal, Seolnal, and Seollal. This is the day when the new year begins, according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Thus it floats on the western calendar. The next Solnal will be on 16 February 2018 by the western calendar.
Solnal is one of the two most important and widely celebrated holidays in Korea (the other is Chusok). It's very much like our New Year -- a time for new beginnings and reconciling old differences. Koreans probably take this more seriously than we do. For example, they like to pay off debts before the old year is gone.
At the end of the workday before Solnal, look out -- that's when the big exodus begins. The big cities empty out and the highways jam up bumper to bumper. Trains and buses are full too, sold out to about the last square centimeter of standing room. Koreans are heading for their ancestral homes (usually where the oldest male lives). The ceremonies they'll carry out will involve paying respect to those elders. They'll also have to do some maintenance on the family graves (perpetual care? What's that?).
One of the Solnal legends says that if children go to sleep on the eve of the new year, their eyebrows will turn white! So kids have a good excuse to stay up all night (or at least try to). Meanwhile, their parents are supposed to hang a straw rice sieve (pokchori) on the house's door or gate. This will bring them good luck and drive away the evil spirits.
One of those evil spirits is Yakwangi. This character is pretty entertaining. On Solnal eve, he wanders round the world and makes trouble, kind of like a demonic Santa Claus.
According to the tales, all your shoes are belong to Yakwangi. If he finds yours, and they fit, they're gone for good. You take off your shoes when you enter the house, right? So you'd normally leave them outside. But on Solnal, you'd better make sure they're inside the house. Get them up as high as possible. Hang them from the rafters or something.
Your anti-Yakwangi insurance policy is that rice sieve on the door, the one I mentioned above. Yakwangi will be looking for your shoes there. Instead, he'll find the sieve. "What's this?", he wonders. "It has so many eyes!" (He thinks the sieve's holes are eyes.) And then he tries to count the eyes. (I guess Yakwangi is easily distracted.) Pretty soon he loses count and starts all over again. And again. And again, all night long. By and by Solnal dawns. Like most spirits, Yakwangi has to hide from the day. You've saved your shoes!
But I digress. Like Yakwangi, I'm easily distracted.
Back to the rituals. On Solnal morning, you dress up in brand new, traditional clothes (solbim). It's yet another fresh start. Then the first order of the day is charye. This is the ancestor-honoring ceremony. Everybody gathers at the elder's house. They set up a special screen and table. On the table go ancestral artifacts and food offerings. The men bow.
For some reason, the ancestors never seem to eat the food they offer, so after the ceremony is over with, the family does. Very sensible these folks, not wasting food.
The next traditional ritual is sebae. Here the younger people bow to their older ones, and recite health and happiness wishes for the new year. Then comes the kids' favorite part. It's kind of like Easter, but with money instead of candy. Parents used to give out newly minted coins, but nowadays it's more often coupons and gift certificates, which gives the parents some control over how the kids spend their loot.
No matter who you are, you're required to eat ttokkuk (rice cake soup) or ttok-mandukuk (rice cake soup with dumplings) on Solnal. If you don't, you won't have a birthday that year (some of us might think that's a good reason to skip the soup ;-). Because of the way Korea figures age, Solnal is everyone's birthday. If someone asks you, "How many bowls of tokkuk did you eat today?", the correct answer is not "Two," but rather "I am ____ years old today."
The rice cakes used in ttokkuk are not like the fluffy, popcorn-y ones you get in the US supermarkets. These are small, solid discs made from pounded rice flour. They don't taste like much -- not at all unpleasant, just bland, and a bit sweet. If the soup has mandu (dumplings), you're supposed to eat one for each year of your age. Urp. Good luck.
Other Solnal foods: yakshik (sticky sweet rice), chapchae (noodles, vegetables and meat), and pindae-ttok (mung bean pancakes). Drinks: shik-kye (rice punch) and sujong-gwa (persimmon punch).
Solnal has its games, too, though these days they're usually played as a folklore demonstration. Noltuigi is a girls' jumping game played on boards that look like western seesaws. The fulcrum is a rolled-up straw mat. One girl stands at each end of the seesaw. Each one jumps in turn. When she comes down, she launches the other one into the air. (Helmets? What helmets? This is Korea, my friend.) The object of the game is to see who can jump higher. Noltuigi makes western seesawing look positively relaxing!
This may seem like good clean fun but Noltuigi's origins are darker than that. This game dates to the Choson Dynasty. In those days women had essentially zero freedom. They were locked up the year round in the family compounds. If they could jump high enough in Noltuigi, they'd see over the compound's walls, see the world outside, for just a second. Kind of sobering to consider, eh?
Paengichigi, or top-spinning, is for the boys. They use a wooden stick to keep the top moving. The one whose top spins longest wins.
In chegichagi, kids of both sexes kick a chegi. This is a coin or something else of that weight, wrapped in a cloth so it has a heavy end and a light end (like a western shuttlecock). Once again the object is to keep the chegi in play as long as possible.
Yutnori is played with 4 wooden sticks, round on one side and flat on the other. The players divide into two teams and throw the sticks. The way they land (flat or round side up) determines how the play moves around the game board. The team which moves all four sticks around the board first wins. Yutnori is based on divination rituals.
You'd think the weather would get in the way, but kite flying (yonnalligi) is also a Solnal tradition. This one dates back to the Silla Kingdom (57 BCE to 668 CE).
In tuho, the players try to throw arrows into a narrow-necked jar. Tuho was originally strictly for the country club set, but in today's sort-of egalitarian Korea, anybody can play tuho.
As I suggested, nowadays the traditional games are mostly just public demonstrations by folks who are into traditions and historical re-enactment. These are usually sponsored by some goverment agency, trying to keep the traditions alive (though it's probably futile). Now that Koreans can even rent video hookups so they can do their ancestor worship by TV, I suppose it's only a matter of time before the rituals disappear. I suspect that the generation growing up now in Korea won't be as faithful about them as their parents were.
Daeborum is the first full moon of the lunar new year, the 15th day of the first lunar month. It's the traditional beginning of the agricultural year. Koreans have held a festival on this day since the Shilla Dynasty.
Spirits are supposed to be abroad in the night on Daeborum, so the tradition is to go looking for them with lanterns (these days it's more often kids with flashlights). Or you might climb a nearby mountain and do talmaji (view the full moon).
Daeborum foods are ogak-bap (made with rice, two types of millet, and red and black beans), yakshik (sticky sweet rice with chestnuts, dates, and pine nuts) and mug-un-namul (dried vegetables, herbs, and mushrooms).
Eating nuts on Daeborum -- one for each year of your life -- is said to help frighten away the bad spirits and bring good luck. You're supposed to crack them with your teeth! If you don't break a tooth doing it, this will allegedly keep your teeth healthy for the year. Afterwards, drinking cold wine (kwibalki sul) will sharpen up your ears for good news, or so they say. At least it might make your toothache feel better.
Daeborum is coming up on 02 March 2018.
Mosumnal, the first day of the second lunar month, is a traditional day off for farm workers, so it's sometimes called Farmhands' Day. The ceremonies that used to be held on this day supposedly drove caterpillars out of the roofs of the houses. Apparently caterpillars aren't good for thatched roofs. See what you can learn on the web? Traditional Mosumnal foods include songpyon, crescent-shaped rice cakes flavored with pine and filled with sweet red bean paste. Yum. (That is not sarcasm.)
The next Mosumnal will be on 17 March 2018.
Independence Day, or Samil, is one of the holidays that hold still on the Western calendar. It celebrates the anniversary of 1 March 1919, the day when Korea's movement for independence from Japan started. Official holiday.
Hanshik, or "Cold Food Day," is on 5 April -- the 105th day after the winter solstice (Tongji). It's yet another day for cleaning your ancestors' graves and doing ceremonies in honor of the dead. It's sometimes called Arbor Day because it's a time for planting, especially trees and vegetables. For rice farmers, this is the day to start work in the paddies.
The tradition of eating cold food on Hanshik came from China. According to the legend, some important statesman died in a fire. In his honor, the emperor banned all fires for one day. Curiously, though, nowadays more Koreans than Chinese celebrate Hanshik.
Children's Day, or Orinial, comes right on Labor Day's heels, 5 May. It started in 1922. This is also official, and is usually a day to take the kids out for a nice spring outing. Or it would be, if you had any.
The Buddha's Birthday, or Chopail, is on the 8th day of the fourth lunar month (the next one is 22 May 2018). This is another official holiday. The Korean government usually tries to give the Buddah's Birthday and Christmas Day equal billing.
Starting a week or so before the big day, you'll start seeing lanterns hung everywhere you go, even in the city streets. Lanterns are are supposed to symbolize Buddha's enlightenment. Many times, at least in the temple yards, they'll have prayers written on little tags hanging from them.
On the Buddha's birthday itself, the temples open their doors to guests (actually you can visit any time, but there's extra pomp and circumstance on Chopail). They serve free lunch to everybody -- usually basic but tasty fare.
If you're having bad luck, you're supposed to buy a prayer tag, or make a food offering. Bags of rice are the usual deal, and there's generally someone nearby selling them. Try tapdori (circling the pagoda), and make sure you "wash the baby Buddha" (ladle water over the golden statue). Don't forget to drop your donation into the box before you scoop up the water. We usually put in about 5000 won.
Tano (Dano in the new Romanization) is one of Korea's most ancient holidays. It's the official beginning of summer and hot weather. The name supposedly comes from its date. Tano means "first fifth" -- it's the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Not sure how that equals "first fifth," but that's what I've read.
As you'll discover your first year there, Korea can be a hot, humid place. Tradition says that if you start drinking the herb tea aheho-taeang on Tano and carry on right through the summer, you'll stay cool - or at least cooler.
Legend has it that during the Choson Dynasty, one of the kings put out the word that all the craftspeople in Korea were supposed to make fans, so everybody could get one at Tano time. These days the fans come from factories (usually in Vietnam or China), but you can still get one at Tano -- for a price, of course.
In the old days, Tano was a day of rest and recreation. Farmers took the day off. It was also just about the only time that married women were allowed to leave their family compounds and visit their birth families. Confucian rules tied them down pretty rigidly once they were married.
Tano has two main traditional games. Swinging is for women -- they swing standing up. In fact the other name for Tano is "Swing Day." The men's game is ssirum, or wrestling.
Shamans, what few of them remain in Korea, worship the mountain gods with ancient rituals. (Sorry, no human sacrifice. ;-)
Surichi-ttok, or rice cake cooked with mugwort leaves (which are supposed to drive away the evil spirits) and chunchi-kuk (fish soup) are the traditional Tano foods. Women wash their hair in iris water, and place iris sticks in their hair.
Like so many traditional Korean holidays, Tano (Dano) isn't as big a deal as it used to be in the old days. But Kangnung (Gangneung) usually does it up right with a big multi-day festival every year. This is the official celebration (actually designated Intangible Cultural Asset #13 by the Korean government) and people come from all over the nation for the weekend. Sometimes we westerners show up too.
Kangnung Tano (or Gangneung Dano, if you prefer) starts on the holiday and runs for 4 more days after that. Plan to arrive a few days before 18 June 2018.
Memorial Day, Hyun Choong Il, is the 6th of June. It's pretty much the same as our US holiday -- a rememberance of the soldiers who have died in battle for Korea, and in the movement for independence from Japan. Soldiers are honored in ceremonies, especially at Seoul's National Cemetary. Official holiday.
Chilsok is the 7th day of the 7th lunar month (17 August 2018). It marks the beginning of the monsoon season. It's also a sort of early harvest festival, because melons and pumpkins ripen about this time. Not surprisingly, pumpkins figure in some of the traditional Chilsok foods. So does wheat, since wheat's flavor is supposed to be at its peak at Chilsok. If you can actually find anyone celebrating this neglected and nearly forgotten festival, you're apt to get wheat noodles and/or milijeonbyeong (pancakes). Rice cakes with azuki red beans (siruttok) are also traditional.
Liberation Day (Kwang Bok Jul or Gwangbokjeol), 15 August, is an official holiday marking the real end of Japan's occupation of Korea in 1945. This is the anniversary of the day that Japan surrendered to the Allies. On the same day 3 years later, the Republic of Korea officially came into existence, so it's sort of a double holiday.
Chusok (or Chuseok) is the Harvest Moon Festival. It's an official holiday, the Korean equivalent of the our Thanksgiving. It's on the 15th day of the 8th month in the Lunar Year, usually in September or October. If you want to see the next one, get to Korea a few days ahead of 24 September 2018. You'll need to get a place to stay before the holiday, because just about everything shuts down on Chusok.
As with most major Korean holidays, most people go home to pay their respects to their parents and ancestors, and tend to their ancestors' gravesites. (Do you see a pattern emerging here?) They tidy up the tombs and burial mounds, and place offerings of new (newly harvested) rice, fresh fruit, and other fresh food. Oddly, once again, they continue offering these year after year, even though the ancestors don't seem to have much of an appetite for them. ;-)
Special foods for Chusok include tasty songpyon, crescent-shaped (like the moon) rice cakes filled with sesame, chestnut, or red bean paste, and songi (mushrooms).
Just like Thanksgiving, Chusok means great feasting. And games. Americans have football, Koreans have Kanggangsuwollae (traditional dance), tug-of-war, and Kobuk-nori. In Kobuk-nori, two men dress up as a tortoise and go from house to house. Each household is supposed to give them food and drink, sort of like wassailing in England or caroling in the states.
OK, not really. Except for real old-timers and historical re-creations, the traditional games are pretty much forgotten. However, some folks in rural areas still hold to the old custom of climbing the hills and swinging lighted torches in circles as the harvest moon rises.
Foundation Day, or Kae Chun Jul (Gaecheonjeol), digs way back into history. It recognizes the beginning of the Choson Dynasty, (also Romanized as Joseon Dynasty) in 2333 BCE. This is an official holiday. Enjoy.
Tongji, or Winter Solstice, is another Korean holiday that you can circle every year on the western calendar. It's always on the 22nd of December. The traditional food of Tongji is ppat-chuk, a thick red bean soup with round rice-cake balls. Don't eat it all! Save some to pour around the outside of your house. That will keep away the nasty evil spirits (who don't like the color red).
Christmas Day is on (duh) the 25th of December. Koreans don't seem to make as big a deal of Christmas as most westerners do, but their government is careful to make it an official holiday just as they do with the Buddha's Birthday.