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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

New Year’s – Korean Style!

If you’ve been in Korea for more than a few weeks, you’ve been through two New Years holidays. The first and more minor of the two is January 1st. This is the New Years of the western world and is celebrated here in Korea but plays only a small part. On this holiday Koreans typically watch the sun rise, sometimes from unique vantage points such as Ganjeolgot south of the city of Ulsan. The second, and bigger of the two New Years, is Sol Nal. Sol Nal is the New Year as marked on the Lunar calendar which is the first day of the first moon, or month. Unless you’re married to, dating, living with or have a close friendship with a Korean, you aren’t likely to see this special day from the perspective of a Korean.

New Year’s Day is one of the biggest holidays of the year here in Korea. On this day, people dress their best, take off from work and gather with family. In the past, traditional celebrations involved entire villages. After families gathered to observe memorial services for their ancestors and have visited the elders of the village to pay their respects, villagers would gather together to enjoy the company of each other with the accompaniment of farmer music and pay tribute to the earth spirit. First, the villagers visit the home of the wealthiest villager, where they are entertained with food and drink. They then dance around the yard and through the house and barns singing songs to the earth spirit, asking that the family and home be blessed in the coming year. Afterward, they move on to the next house and then to the next until all the homes had been visited. With such merrymaking activities, the earth spirit was supposed to be pleased and would endow the villagers with many rewards throughout the year. A feast is spread and the younger members of the family make New Year’s their pledge of obedience to their elders. The youngsters then go around the neighborhood to offer New Year’s greetings to their older relatives and acquaintances. With the advent of the 20th century and urbanization this level of celebration became impractical. Indeed, many do not even known their neighbors in the vast tracts of high rise apartments.

These days, a typical Sol Nal celebration is a family affair. Just as with Chuseok, many families will observe the ancestral ceremonies, or JeSa. An ancestor ceremony is meant to honor and pay respect to the deceased, sometimes up to four generations ago. On New Years, it is meant as a way to tell the spirits what transpired in the past year and ask for blessings for the new.

The JeSa ritual table with family tablet behind

The JeSa begins with a tablet, shrine or similar artifact that symbolizes the family. Before it, a table is set with the finest and freshest of meats, fish, grains and fruit.

JeSa table. All items must be placed according to their food group and color. The table must also be arranged facing east

The ceremony begins with ritual greetings, or gangshin. In the first ritual offering, an offering of rice wine is given by the eldest son. Wine is poured into a bowl in three pours. He then passes the wine over burning incense three times and then sets it on the table. He then shows his respect by performing a ritual bow twice. All bows are knees and nose to the floor, palms down.

The second offering of wine is then performed by the next eldest son. The ritual is done in the same manner – poured into the bowl and passed over the incense in threes. He also shows his respect with a set of two ritual bows. Following the second offering of wine, another offering is carried out by either one of the sons-in-law of the deceased or by the oldest person attending the ceremony.

Once the offerings of wine to the deceased spirits are concluded, a sequence of rituals that symbolized the spirits’ arrival and acceptance of the food and wine is dramatized. These rituals are carried out to assist the spirits into accepting the offerings. The lid of the rice bowl is uncovered and a spoon settled into it to assist the spirits. Similarly, a pair of chopsticks is placed on the meat or dried fish, while all the participants stand or kneel in silent respect for the few minutes it would take the spirits to savor the food and the wine.

Broth is also offered to the spirits, a gesture which is again followed by a few minutes pause to allow the spirits to eat it at leisure. When all the ritual offerings are made, all the attendants at the ceremony bow twice. Before the spirits are sent off until the next JeSa, a bowl of wine is sprinkled in sets of three outside the front threshold of the house. This is an offering to any spirits still lingering nearby to pray for peace for the coming year. With the spirits fully sated, the feasting of the food and wine by the family members follows. More a ritual than a full feasting, only small morsels of food and sips of wine are consumed. Eating the ritual food and wine is considered to be an integral part of the ceremony, as it symbolizes the receiving of the blessings bestowed upon the family.

After the JeSa is performed, the family will go to a SongMyo,

SongMyo, or graveside ancestor service

or visit to the ancestral grave. For some, its a burial mound and for others a cemetery plot. Still others, such as soldiers and sailors, are interred in the military memorial grounds. A smaller service, similar to the JeSa, is performed here. Ritual food is placed around the grave and offered to the spirit. If the deceased was a smoker, a cigarette may be lit for his (women smokers are frowned upon) smoking pleasure. Wine is sprinkled around the grave, again, in threes. At the SongMyo, the family again bows twice in respect to the deceased. Small portions of the ritual food are again eaten by those attending.

The final ritual of New Years is the SeBae, which is to living people what the SongMyo is to the deceased. A necessary act of etiquette for descendents, a SeBae is a formal bow of respect to one’s elders in a pledge of obedience for the coming year. In older times, young people would have gone around the village to offer their new years greetings to other relatives and acquaintances. These days it is typically performed for only the family at hand. For those foreigners here in a teaching capacity, most already know that children like this part the best – it usually results in a gift of cash from the elders they bow to.

Sol Nal is not only about rituals, but traditions as well. The most well known tradition is eating ddeok guk, or rice cake soup. The soup symbolizes purity (due to its white color) and maturity.

Ddeok Guk - Rice Cake Soup

Tradition states that if you have ddeok guk on New years day, you get one year older. An additional meaning is to wish to become mature, or wishing long life, owing to the very long shape of the rice cakes used for ddeok guk. They are also very rich and their shape looks like currency in the old days.
Therefore, to eat ddeok guk symbolizes a growing older and having a long, pure and rich life. Get some!

No matter the reason you’re here in Korea, whether for the money, culture or just getting away from the wicked ways of the west, experiencing one of the truly Korean holidays as only Koreans do it is a must.


If I’ve gotten any of the details wrong, I’d be pleased to be corrected.