Despite the pervasiveness of Christianity in South Korea, many holidays are Chinese and Confucian in origin. Some of the biggest holidays honor dead ancestors.

Public Holidays: New Year’s Day (January 1, the New Year’s holiday is generally January 1-3); Folklore Day (January 3); Lunar New Year (movable date in January or February); Independence Movement Day (March 1); Arbor Day (April 5); Labor Day (May 1), Children’s Day (May 5); Birth of Buddha (movable date in April or May); Memorial Day (June 6); Constitution Day (July 17); Independence Day (Liberation Day, Kwangbokchol, August 15); Ch’usok (an autumnal harvest festival and day of thanksgiving; movable date in September or October); National Foundation Day (Kaech'onjol October 3); Hangul (Korean Alphabet) Day (October 9); Christmas; 25 December. and Christmas Day (December 25). [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

Labor Day (May 1), Children’s Day (May 5) and Birth of Buddha (movable date in April or May) are grouped together in a week-or-so-long spring holiday in late April and early May known as Golden Week. Kwangbokchol (the Day of Recovering the Light) celebrates the nation's liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. There are parades and speeches that recall the struggle against Japan and the importance of Korean nationhood. Kaech'onjol (Heaven Opening Day) commemorates the founding of the first Korean kingdom, KoChoson, by the legendary priest-king Tan'gun Wanggom. People who belong to the Tan'gun sect visit his shrine in Seoul and pay their respects to his spirit.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: Independence Movement Day (Samil Day, March 1) commemorates the uprising against Japanese colonial rule that took place on March 1, 1919. There are commemorative ceremonies at locations associated with the Independence Movement, such as the park in downtown Seoul where the Declaration of Independence from Japan was read in 1919. Arbor Day (April 5) is an environment holiday that commemorates the campaign to restore forests to the mountains of the Korean peninsula. During the reforestation campaign, teachers and parents led groups of children into the hill to plant tree seedlings. Since the success of the reforestration program, it has become an occasion for family and group picnics. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Children's Day (May 5). A school holiday during which families typically visit parks and playgrounds and enjoy the clean air and warm temperatures of spring. Memorial Day (June 6). An official occasion for mourning the dead, particularly those who died in the Korean War, 1950-53. Constitution Day (July 17) commemorates the promulgation of the South Korean constitution on July 17, 1948. It is a holiday that celebrates South Korea's democracy. Government offices and many businesses are closed, and people leave the city for the clean air of the mountains.

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “The two most important national holidays are New Year's Day and Ch'usok (which falls on the eighth full moon by the lunar calendar). Koreans observe both solar and lunar New Year's holidays of which many people wear hanbok (traditional dress), offer sebae (New Year's greetings with a "big bow") to their parents, eat ttok-kuk (rice-cake soup), play traditional games, and observe ancestor rites. On Ch'usok, the harvest festival celebrations include eating special foods such as songp'yon (half-moon-shaped rice cakes) and making family visits to ancestral graves to tidy the tomb area and offer fruits and other foods, including steamed rice cooked with newly harvested grain. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Among the lesser holidays are Taeborum two weeks after Chinese New Year and Tano in June or July. On Tano Day, a holiday that usually falls in June or July on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, women wash their hair in changpo (iris-boiled water) as part of ritual to ensure a good harvests.

Chinese Calendar

Both Gregorian and Chinese calendars are used in China and Korea. Both countries celebrate two new years. The four-day Chinese New Year, Tet (the three-day Vietnamese New Year) and Suhl (the three- to four-day Korean New Year festival) begins on the first new moon when the sun enter the constellation Aquarius. Consequently, Chinese New Year may fall between January 21 and February 19.

The lunar year is divided into 12 lunar months of 29 or 30 days (lunar month is 29 days 12 hours, 44.05 minutes). Extra months are added at fixed intervals and the calendars run through a cycle one every 60 years (1876-1935, 1936-1995, 1996-2055). The Chinese zodiac signs are: the rat (1948, 60, 72, 84, 96); the ox (1949, 61, 73, 85, 97); the tiger (1950, 62, 74, 86, 98); the hare (1951, 63, 75, 87, 99); the dragon (1952, 64, 76, 88, 2000); the snake (1953, 65, 77, 89, 2001); the horse (1954, 66, 78, 90, 2002); the sheep (1955, 67, 79, 91, 2003); the monkey (1956, 68, 80, 92, 2004); the rooster (1957, 69, 81, 93, 2005); the dog (1958, 70, 82, 94, 2006) and the pig (1959, 71, 83, 95, 2007).

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The lunar calendar is an agricultural calendar...The shortest day of the year — the winter solstice that falls on December 21 in the solar calendar — is the reference point for the lunar calendar. The lunar year begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice. The calendar then follows the phases of the moon, with a new month beginning on the first day of each lunar cycle. Lunar months are therefore one or two days shorter than months in the solar calendar and begin and end on different days. A lunar year of twelve lunar months therefore is shorter than a solar year. This means that "New Year's" keeps getting earlier every year until it is necessary to insert an extra "intercalary" month (yundal in Korean) to "recalibrate" the calendar so that the seasons fall more or less where they are supposed to...Roughly every third lunar year has an extra month inserted, usually in the spring or summer. As a result, many of the observances in the lunar calendar fall on different dates depending on whether or not the year has an intercalary month. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

The rhythm of life for Korean villagers is still governed by the lunar calendar. On the last day of the of the first lunar month farmers spread manure. On the 20th day of the second moon trees are planted, and in the middle of the third moon red-pepper seeds are sewn. Rices seedlings are transplanted in the fourth moon. Rice, buckwheat and sesame are harvested in the 9th lunar month and grains are threshed and sauces are made during the 10th moon. Koreans have followed this routine from at least the 4th century. [Source: “The Villagers” by Richard Critchfield, Anchor Books]


Milestone Celebrations

One of the most important Korean celebrations takes place on the hundredth day after a baby's birth, when the child is dressed up in traditional clothes and photographed and given his or her first spoon and set of chopsticks. The tradition dates back to a time when many children died in the first few weeks after they were born and survival to 100 days was cause for celebration. At the party for the first birthday, objects such as scissors, a boo, thread and money are placed before the child and the child’s future is determined by which object he chooses. For example if the child picks the book then he or she will be a scholar.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “According to the Confucian tradition in pre-modern Korea, there were four ceremonial milestones in a man's life: "capping," wedding, the funeral, and ancestral rituals. "Capping" was the coming-of-age ceremony for a young man, when his hair was put up in a topknot and he was officially given his responsibilities as a male adult in the family. Marriage marked the beginning of his own household, even if the newlywed couple continued to live with the man's parents. Funerals, of course, marked a man's becoming an ancestor, and the rituals in his memory that were performed by his descendants composed the fourth type of "life" ceremony. Modern Korean families regularly celebrate birthdays in the Western style with parties and dinners and congratulatory exchanges of gifts. There is even a Korean version of the song "Happy Birthday." But there is one birthday that has always been climactic in Korean tradition — the sixtieth. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“When the birth occurs it is customary to string a straw rope called a kumjul across the gate of the family's yard. This is to keep evil spirits away and to request privacy until the mother and family are ready to receive well-wishers. Various items are woven into the straw rope to indicate the baby's gender. In most places red peppers indicate a son and charcoal indicates a daughter. Additional items might include pieces of paper, seaweed, pine branches, and stones. Inside, family members concern themselves with the recovery of the mother, who traditionally eats soup made from boiled seaweed, a rich source of iron, and rice. Of equal concern is the survival of the baby, since Korea traditionally has suffered a high rate of infant mortality.

“The baby's survival is "official" at the age of 100 days, when a ceremony called the paegil takes place. The paegil ceremony for a healthy infant is an occasion for friends and neighbors to gather to offer thanks to the Samshin Halmoni, or "grandmother spirit," who is said to watch over mothers and infants, to offer felicitations and admire the child, and to share in a feast that betokens a long life. An even more important occasion is the tol, or first birthday, when the baby again is the center of attention and engages in a little ceremony that indicates his or her future. At the tol ceremony the baby is dressed up in a full Korean child's costume, boys wearing miniature officials' caps and girls wearing makeup.”

Hwan’gap (the 60th Birthday)

Hwan’gap (the 60th birthday) is a big deal and a big party is held when an individual reaches that milestone. It marks the completion of the 60-year cyclical calendar (the 12 Chinese zodiac years times the 12-period periods associated with each of the five elements of Taoism, metal, wood, water, fire and earth).Young people bow to their birthday elder, wishing him or her a long life. Most guests present an envelope with crisp new won notes instead of a present. The envelope often says "Congratulations" or "Best Wishes." Parties for the 70th, 80th and 88th birthdays can also be a big deal in Korea.

Clark wrote: “Before the adoption of the Western calendar with its characteristic decades and centuries, Koreans used a system for counting time that ran in sixty-year cycles instead of hundred-year centuries and the years had sequential names, not numbers. The year corresponding to A.D. 1924 was the first year of one cycle and was therefore called the kapcha year. The following year, 1925, had the second name in the cycle, which was ulch'uk. The third year, 1926, had the third name, pyongin. A man could be born at any point in the sixty-year cycle but the name of his birth year would not come around again until he turned sixty. A person born in 1943, a kyemi year, will turn sixty in the next kyemi year, which is 2003. Since this is well beyond the traditional life expectancy in Korea, though many more Koreans live far beyond the age of sixty today, it remains an occasion for considerable celebration. The sixtieth birthday ceremony is called the hwan'gap (literally "returning to the kap year" or "first year") and is a time for friends and family to gather, feast, and offer deep bows and fine gifts.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Koreans like to hold a grand "sixty-year-old birthday banquet" when an old person is sixty years of age. In the eyes of Koreans, being sixty years of age is a milestone on the road of life. At the sixty-year-old birthday banquet, the old person wears a full dress, sitting at the middle of a "long life table" accompanied by seniors in the neighborhood. When it is time to congratulate the old person, sons, daughters, close relatives and their spouses — in the order of males first, females later and older ones first, younger ones later, lead by the eldest son — walk in turns to the table, honoring the old person on bended knees, and drink a toast and thank the 60-year-old elder for bringing them up and wish them health and long life. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, ~]

The English translation of the song for the occasion — "Happy Birthday, Mum" — goes:
The family happily gathers under the same roof to congratulate on mother's six-year-old birthday,
Happy laughters and cheerful voices are heard, warm currents gush to the mind.
Oh, dear mum! Wishing you long life, wishing you long life,
Your son and daughter-in-law hold a grand sixty-year-old birthday banquet for you, and propose a toast for your health. ~

You have brought sons and daughters with much ado, and they will bear it in mind,
Wishing you to enjoy your late years, and we propose a toast to you.
Oh, dear mum! Wishing you long life, wishing you long life,
Your daughters and sons-in-law propose a toast for your health.

You have also brought up grandsons and granddaughters, and they offer birthday felicitations to you,
They dance happily and trippingly to wish you long-time happiness.
Oh, dear mum! Wishing you long life, wishing you long life,
Grandsons and granddaughters bend before you to wish you long life.
(If it is the father's birthday, substitute "Dad" for "Mum") ~

Sollal: Korean Chinese Lunar New Year

Sollal — Korean New Year, or Lunar or Chinese New Year — is the second biggest holiday of the year after Chusok. Generally occurring in early or mid February, the holiday has its roots in Confucianism and it is traditionally led by the oldest son to show respect for elders. It has some similarities with Chinese New Year in China but is also different. In the early 1990s, Sollal was made into a three day holiday by the government to give people enough time to gather for a family reunion.

The three- to four-day Korean festival Sollal ( Seollal, Suhl, Solar), four-day Chinese New Year (Spring Festival, Chun Jie, Hsin Nien) , and the three-day Vietnamese New Year (Tet), begin on the second new moon after the winter solstice and may fall anywhere between January 21 and February 19.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “On Sollal, even in the cities, people dress up in flowing hanbok Korean clothing and visit older relatives and seniors to pay respects and participate in ceremonies memorializing ancestors. The lunar New Year's holiday is everyone's birthday, in effect, since people say they are a year older after the turn of the year. Families feast on Sollal and younger people perform ritual sebae in front of their elders, bowing low to the floor to show respect and receiving praise and affection in return.“ [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Lunar New Year is a time of gift giving. According to tradition, when children bow to their elders they are rewarded with a gift or some money. In the old days children used to bow only to their parents and grandparents and receive a few coins, but these days they often receive large sums of cash and bow not only to their parents and grandparents, but to everyone they can think of: uncles, aunts, and even teachers. Jokes are often made about youngsters bowing to people on the street in hopes of receiving some money.

Sollal Customs and Foods

On the day before Sollal, people visit their elders and bow to them to show their gratitude for the care they have provided the previous year. That night people drink and play games, and try to stay up all night. It is said that any anyone who sleeps will age prematurely so if somebody nods off, his or her eyebrows are dusted with white powder as a joke.

Before dawn special straw rice strainers called pokchori are hung over the door to bring good luck in the coming year. In many households paper talesmen (often in the shape of that year's Chinese zodiac sign) are pasted in strategic places to keep away evil demons and attract prosperity. A small memorial service is held for ancestors, after which people perform sebae, bowing that shows respect to the elders for the coming year. Some people wear traditional clothes.

During the morning ceremony called chesa (che-sa) there is a lot of bowing and incense. Strict rules govern the way food is placed on the table and prepared with the main idea being to make the deceased feel welcome, Doors are left open so spirits can enter. Only after serving the dead to the living start eating. Chesa is a Confucian practice that is exclusively male. The oldest son leads the ceremony while women stay behind. The only female contribution is when the wife of the eldest son scoops rice into a bowl that her husband places on the table.

Traditional foods and drinks include tok kuk (rice cake soup), mandu (dumplings), bean pancakes, shik'e (rice punch) and sujonggwa (cinnamon and persimmon punch). There are five kinds of steamed fish, five kinds of marinated vegetables, four types of sweet rice cakes, and seven kinds of fruit. Different kinds of ji-jim (pancakes with vegetables, seafood or meat) are stacked nine levels high. One of the main dishes is chap-chae (glass noodles with meat and vegetables). At the head of the table are incense burners and neatly stacked chestnuts and dates. Among the no-nos are fruits with fuzzy skins such as peaches and seasoned rather than steamed fish.

After chesa family members bow to their elders as part of a ritual called se-be . Rather than simply bowing at the waist family members often get down on their hands and knees and prostrate themselves to show their deep respect. Dinner often begins in the early afternoon and extends into the night. It is comprised of leftovers from chesa and duk-gook (beef broth with rice cakes)

Children often play folk games such as “yut nori” (a stick throwing game), seesaw-jumping, shuttlecock kicking, kite flying, arrow throwing and top spinning. Yut nori players throw four half-round sticks and move pieces around a board according to how many of the sticks fall flat side up. In the old days, men used to sing dirty folk songs and Confucian scholars and Buddhist monks were depicted in dramas chasing after prostitutes. These days few people dress up in traditional han-bok clothes or play folk games. Mostly people cook, eat, watch television and look at their smart phones, and drink a lot.


Chesa is a family ceremony that honors the memory and spirits of departed ancestors usually performed on one of Korea's feast days, such as Lunar New Year's Day. Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “No Confucian family ritual is more significant than the annual chesa or ceremony honoring the spirits of the most recently departed ancestors. “Someone may address the spirit in an attitude like prayer, the act that makes the chesa seem like ancestor worship to Westerners, even though it is more properly understood as a ceremony honoring the memory of an ancestor. The real purpose of the chesa ceremony is to remind everyone of the continuity of the family and of the debt that is still owed by younger generations to those who went before.

“Because of the stress on lineage in Korean culture, chesa has attracted much attention as a key element of family life. The "standard" chesa is a family ceremony that remembers one or two, or sometimes three, generations of ancestors in the father's lineage. Families honor their ancestors in chesa ceremonies on Lunar New Year's Day and Ch'usok, the Harvest Festival. They also honor specific ancestors on the anniversaries of their deaths, particularly if the person being honored has died within the past three years. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“The ceremony is simple yet elegant and respectful. The men of the family gather in a hall or main room of the house of the eldest living male descendant, into which has been placed the "ancestral tablet" (shinju) of the deceased. The tablet is the object that symbolizes the spirit of the ancestor and, if the family has the means, is usually stored in a special shrine called a sadang. When it is brought into the house for the chesa, the tablet is treated like an extremely valuable and even holy object. Written on it is the name of the ancestor and his titles, if any, and the dates and hours of his birth and death, essential elements for determining his fortune. It is always kept in a polished lacquer case and the case is kept closed except during the actual ceremony, when it is opened enough to expose the tablet to view.

“Before the ceremony the women of the household — who until recent years never participated in the ancestral ceremony itself — will have arranged dishes containing assorted grains, meats, fruits, nuts, wine, and pastries or confections along with bowls of rice and soup with chopsticks and spoons as if for a feast. The eldest male relative is the master of ceremonies and leads the men in offering the food to the ancestral spirit. He does this by spooning cooked rice into the soup bowl set before the ancestral tablet. The ceremony varies by region and household but normally the other men take turns symbolically feeding the spirit and then together they do a deep ritual bow, the ultimate sign of respect. They get down on their knees, put their hands on the floor, and then touch their foreheads to their hands. The bow is done slowly and repeatedly, with the participant rising to his feet between each bow.

“The complete chesa consists of several rounds of this ritual serving and bowing. It may also involve statements addressed to the spirit that resemble prayers to the dead ancestor. It is this feature of the ceremony that has always caused friction between the Confucian tradition and Christianity in Korea, as elsewhere in East Asia, since Christians are supposed to reject spirits and worship only Jehovah, in keeping with the Ten Commandments. However, Christians, like all Koreans, strongly feel the need to memorialize their ancestors in one way or another. They have therefore found ways to turn the traditional ancestral ceremony into a memorial service instead of a feast that connotes communing with the dead.”

Visiting Fortunetellers on Korean Chinese Lunar New Year

Lee Ho-jeoung wrote in the JoongAng Daily: Whenever a new year starts, Koreans more than anything like to make mad dashes to their local fortune-tellers. There are different ways of foreseeing the future. Some fortune-tellers hold conversations with the souls of clients' ancestors or with unseen gods. Some use mathematical and scientific methods that apparently only they can can read or understand. Some rely completely on visions that seem only to make sense in their eyes and no one else's. Some spread rice on a table and read the grains. Some read wooden sticks to see what's ahead. All fortune-tellers talk of a future that, well, may or may not come true. [Source: Lee Ho-jeoung, JoongAng Daily, January 3, 2003]

To celebrate this Year of the Sheep, the JoongAng Daily randomly selected three fortune-tellers and asked each what 2003 holds in store for this country. Lee Soo foresees the future through the past. He used to be a foreign exchange dealer, bases his fortune-telling on two principles — "history repeats itself" and "numbers don't lie." Now he runs a fortune-telling Web site,, available in English.

Early last year, in the Year of the Horse, Mr. Lee predicted that Roh Moo-hyun would make it to the Blue House. "Reformers have historically taken the inside track in the Year of the Horse," Mr. Lee says. "It's the perfect timing for such a progressive as Mr. Roh." Mr. Lee, seated in his office in Mok-dong, southwestern Seoul, says he also foretold the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedy in the Year of the Snake. "Fortune has not been favorable to the United States in the Year of the Snake — for one thing, Pearl Harbor happened that year."

The year 2003 is like a calm after a storm, like vegetation refreshed by rainfall, he says. In other words, Mr. Lee sees economic and political stability, to some extent, at least compared to last year. But in the latter half of the year, Mr. Lee sees growing discordance in the Five Elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth), portending misfortune that will reach its peak in 2004. Mr. Lee expects it will be highly likely for the United States to begin a war against Iraq before February, when the Year of the Horse ends by the lunar calendar. "The U.S. historically had many wars in the Year of the Horse," he says. Mr. Lee is keenly interested in the stock market, too. "Based on a 60-year cycle, the first half of this year is in favorable shape." Beginning in August, however, the spirit of metal will get stronger, which projects great jeopardy for the market. "Get out of the stock market at least in July," Mr. Lee warns. This year cannot be free from calamities like terrorist attacks, droughts or floods, Mr. Lee predicts. "The Five Elements are placed incompatibly this year, which foretells sacrifice of numerous lives. People should especially look out for water-related disasters," he says.

“Cha Jin-bae, 54, working out a small tent in Daehangno, central Seoul, is a fortune-teller who reads the future chiefly through a customer's face and palms. He also uses the more traditional "four pillars," which utilize the year, month, day and time of a client's birth. When he feels like it, he also has visions. "For the Year of the Sheep, the roadway ahead will be cleared and cleaned," he forecasts. "It is difficult to predict with much accuracy the future of this country," he says, hedging. "Unlike telling a person's fortune, the prospect of a country has a lot of variables that could change the future. Therefore, my prediction may not be exact and things may change." That said, he does believe that the country will settle down and grow more stable — sometime in July. "Everything will turn out fine by then. Even the nuclear crisis in North Korea will be resolved," says Mr. Cha. Mr. Cha adds that several well-known, older-generation politicians will announce their resignations, and that new and younger political figures will emerge. "There will be one or two young politicians who are in their 20s," Mr. Cha says.

Kim Jae-won, 72, who plies his trade in his apartment/office on the fourth floor of a building in Mangwon-dong, northwest Seoul, says that the outlook for the new year is something a fortune-teller cannot and should not predict. "I have a basic guideline that I use when talking about the future, but unlike other fortune-tellers I don't predict the outlook for a country," he says. "And that, my friend, has been my belief for more than 30 years." For individuals, however, he says he has a systematic method of predicting what may lie ahead. "It may not look like it, but this is very scientific," says Mr. Kim. He also says that he adds to the usual formula of dates and times his own experiences about what events he thinks are extremely likely to take place. Nevertheless, there is one rule of thumb that he always follows when telling others what will follow. "If I see bad things happening to a client, I never tell him directly what that will be," he says. "I merely point him in the direction so that a bad thing can be avoided. For the good things, I spell them out." Sticking to his rule of thumb, he says that he has only one thing to predict for this year. "It's the Year of the Sheep, but even sheep come in several varieties. They come together and form one, which will lead this year. You understand? No?"

Special Days on the Lunar Calendar

The first full moon of the New Year (15 days weeks after the Lunar New Year) is regarded as the first day of spring. Known as Taeporum (or just porum), the Moon Festival, it celebrated with contemplation of the moon, the burning off the stubble in the fields, the consumption of a special liquor and different kinds of nuts, and the posting of a strip of paper that reads "Spring begins — great good fortune!" Everyone makes a point of enjoying the first full moon, which is sometimes refered to by its Chinese designation, Mangwol, which means "Moon Viewing." Girls pray to the moon for a good marriage and women pray for sons. People visit each other's houses and enjoy wine and the foods of the season in honor of the occasion. They set off firecrackers and sometimes hold intervillage competitions such as tugs-of-war and mock battles in the moonlight. The winning village is supposed to have the better harvest later in the year.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “On the twenty-sixth day of the first lunar month, animals are supposed to stop hibernating (i.e., Korean Groundhog Day, or Kyongchip). Ipch'un ("Spring Begins") is the day for greeting the new growing season by writing fresh slogans and expressions on the gateposts of a person's farmhouse. "Spring Brings Great Joy," is an example. "The Great Sunshine Brings Many Blessings" is another. The phrases often refer to the traits of the zodiac animal that represents the new year. In the year of the turtle, for example, they might mention longevity, since turtles grow very old. In the year of the tiger they might mention safety from thieves and ghosts, since tigers frighten such plagues away. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Ch'unpuri, the Spring Equinox, is the "sliding" day in the lunar calendar that falls on the solar March 21, when the day and night are exactly the same length. Ch'ongmyong. This comes two weeks after Chunpun and is the day to prepare seedbeds for planting rice. The actual date for this task varies by latitude. Hansiky Cold Rice-Eating Day falls in the solar April, 105 days after the winter solstice, and originates in a Chinese story about a nobleman who was so loyal to his fallen sovereign that even fire could not get him to transfer loyalty to the new ruler. A later emperor set aside a day when no one should build a fire or eat hot food, to remember his steadfastness. On Hansik, Koreans visit their own ancestors' graves early in the morning and tidy them up, and eat cold food all day. Kogu. The twelfth day of the third lunar month is Kogu, a day when rain is expected to fall and help the crops grow.

“Buddha's Birthday (Ch'o P'a'il) falls on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month. In addition to holding services, Buddhist temples become virtual fairgrounds and are festooned with multicolored lanterns. There are parades in the evening with monks, nuns, and laypeople carrying softly lit lanterns making for a very beautiful effect. Buddha's birthday is a national holiday in South Korea. The fourteenth day of the fourth lunar month is Mangjong, the day for harvesting the winter barley crop and getting the fields ready for rice planting. This is another "sliding" day depending on location.

“Tanojol (or just "Tano") is the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Traditionally Tanojol has been as big a festival as New Year's, with dressing up and feasts and visits to elders and ancestral tombs. But since the weather is warmer, outdoor sports are also part of Tanojol, the most "typical" being wrestling for young men and swinging on an extremely tall swing for young women who were normally kept safely sequestered in their homes. The swings traditionally were supposed to enable the cloistered girls to see over the walls and catch a glimpse of the boys outside. In recent times the swings have gotten taller and taller and this is now a kind of acrobatic event with male as well as female athletes.

Hajiy the summer solstice is the longest day of the year. Lunar date varies but corresponds to June 21 in the solar calendar. Ipch'u, the official beginning of autumn. This occurs about six weeks after the summer solstice. Ch'ilsok the Night of the Spinning Maiden and Herd Boy. Rain is always expected on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, an occasion that celebrates the love of two stars called the Spinning Maiden and the Herd Boy. The legend is that long ago their romance interfered with their work and they had to be separated by the Milky Way. They are allowed to meet only once a year, on the seventh of the seventh. Magpies fly up and make a bridge for them across the Milky Way, and the rain is made up of the tears they shed when they have to part.

Ch'upuriy, the fall equinox, is on September 21 by the solar calendar. Tongji, the longest night of the year, is the winter solstice, December 21 by the solar calendar. Sohan, the "Small Cold" of winter, occurs about a week after the winter solstice. Taehati) the coldest day of the year, is about three weeks after the winter solstice. During the twelfth lunar month, which is called Sottal, people settle accounts, pay debts, and prepare to welcome the new year. Traditions vary by region. In some places people stay up the whole night before New Year's. In other places there are rituals and ceremonies to exorcise evil and start the new year with a clean slate, and sometimes there are concerts by farmers' bands playing nong'ak ("farmers' music").


The biggest holiday of the year in Korea is Chusok, a harvest festival, sometimes called Korean Thanksgiving, that is held in late September or early October on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. The purpose of Chusok is for families to gather together and give thanks to their ancestors and express this thanks by making offering of food and other items to their ancestor's and tending their graves. Ancestors are honored with special foods.

Lasting for three days, Chusok celebrates family and tradition. Families usually meet at the home of the ranking eldest son, who traditionally lives near the graves of the families ancestors. Married women join the families of their husbands. Depending on which days Chusok falls, the Chusok holiday season last anywhere from three or four days to a week.

The legendary origin of Chusok is said to be in the Three Kingdom Period, when King Yuri (A.D. 24-57) reportedly challenged two rival groups of princesses to compete in a hemp weaving contest and judged the results at a feast held on 15th day of the 8th lunar month. Chusok also has links with Chinese-influenced ancestor worship rituals and traditional harvests festivals in which harvested crops, fruits and freshly-made drinks were offered to gods and ancestors. The name Chusok means “bountiful abundance. It is derived from Chusok-wol, an "autumn evening month" described in the Book of Virtues, a Chinese philosophy book.

Mike Yamashita, a National Geographic photojournalist, wrote; “Family is hugely important in Korea, that’s why this festival focusing on ancestors is so strongly observed here. The moon symbolizes family unity, so Chusok’s timing is determined by the lunar calendar. Children dance under the year’s brightest sky, and round foods signify the full moon as well, As each item is passed over burning incense with prayers to the deceased, relatives take turns bowing before bowls on the table. Koreans are very emotional, and with this festival comes a genuine outpouring of feeling. I think that amid so much rapid change and modernization, they take special comfort in traditional celebrations like this honoring the way things used to be.” [Source: May 2006]

Chusok is a time of the year when people living in the cities return to their rural hometown. Now that most Koreans are urban dwellers, Ch'usok is now known for its unimaginably overloading of South Korea’s transportation system as millions of people try to reach their ancestral villages in the provinces. Reservations for express buses and trains have to be made several months in advance and scalpers sell tickets at hyper-inflated prices to people who didn't plan ahead. The highways are choked with horrific traffic jams. In 1995, an estimated 28 million people hit the road during Chusok, almost two thirds of Korea's population. Some people spent 20 hours trying to reach a destination that under normal circumstances would take three or hour hours to reach.

Chusok Foods

The foods associated most with Chusok are songpyon (white, green and pink moon-shaped cakes made from the new rice and sprinkled with pine needles and filled with things like honey, cinnamon and sweet bean paste). According to one superstition the woman who makes the prettiest songpyon will give birth to a beautiful daughter. The drink associated most with Chusok is chongju (traditional rice wine made from the new crop of rice).

The Chusok celebration begins early in the morning when people wake up and gather for a breakfast of traditional foods and drinks such as songpyon, taro and beef soup, dried persimmons, brown, yellow and green fish and meat, "wild" vegetables, namul (edible wild plants and herbs), a sweet punch made with fruit, dates and chestnuts and chongju. Some people wear traditional clothes, known as hanbok.

Before eating, offerings of fruit, chongju and newly harvested rice are presented to ancestors on a small altar. Each family member then takes a ceremonial drink of chongju and performs a series of three deep bows in which they kneel and touch their head to the floor. Men precede women, and children are before adults. This memorial ceremony, called charye, is the most important Chusok ritual.

Spam, a Luxury Holiday Gift in South Korea

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Stroll into an expensive department store and walk straight past the US$180 watermelon with a ribbon twirled just so around its stem. Don't bother with the tea in a butterfly-shaped tin for US$153, or with the gift boxes of Belgian chocolates or French cheeses. If you're looking for a gift that bespeaks elegance and taste, you might try Spam. The luncheon meat might be the subject of satire in the United States, but in South Korea it is positively classy. With US$136 million in sales, South Korea is the largest market in the world outside the United States for Spam. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2005]

“But here, the pink luncheon meat with its gelatinous shell is deemed too nice to buy for oneself, and 40 percent of the Spam sold here is in the form of gifts. ''Spam really is a luxury item," said Han Geun Rae, 43, an impeccably dressed fashion buyer who was loading gift boxes of Spam into a cart at Shinseyge department store before the recent Chusok holiday.

“Chusok is the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving, the biggest gift-giving occasion of the year. On this one holiday alone, Korean distributor CJ Corp. estimates, 8 million cans change hands. Han's intended recipients were her employees, among them a young single guy and a married woman with children. ''Everybody loves it. It is so easy and convenient," she said.

Koreans take their Spam seriously and seem mystified about why it is a subject of parody among Americans. ''I can't understand what is funny about Spam," said Jeon Pyoung Soo, a CJ Corp. executive who is brand manager here for Spam. Jeon recalled a June visit to Austin, Minn., where Spam's manufacturer, Hormel Foods Corp., has set up a Spam museum devoted to the history and cult of Spam. ''Everybody was laughing and smiling but me," said Jeon, 27, who went to business school in the United States and is fluent in English. ''I knew all the words, but I didn't get the joke."”

Chusok Customs

After breakfast family members drive to the graves of their ancestors for more bowing and offerings. The graves are tended by cutting the grass and making sure the ground is neat and tidy (sometimes the tending is done a week or two before Chusok). The offering consist of chongju and food, and sometimes cigarettes and soju if the deceased was fond of smoking and drinking.

The family members then return home for an afternoon and evening of socializing, playing games such as shuttlecock kicking, seesaw jumping and godori (Korean cards) and watching videos. The men usually relax and enjoy themselves while the women slave away in the kitchen preparing food. Sometimes children are given presents.

In the old days, village men competing against one another in massive tug-of-wars and women did kang-gan-suwollae circle dances (which begins slow and climaxes with dervish-like spinning). Among the performances were archery contests for older men and weaving exhibitions for women. In far southern Korea, women did a torch-lit kanggang suwollae dances wearing elegant Korean costumes. Today, some Christians sing hymns during the Chusok, while others consider it anti-Christian and don't celebrate it at all.

Chusok Chores

Robert Lee wrote in the Korea Herald: “In the past, newly-married women would dread going to their in-laws during Chuseok, for fear of the workload. “When I first started preparing for the holidays it was really tiring. No matter how hard I worked, I didn’t see an end in sight. I worked to the point where my legs would swell up,” said No Eun-jeong, who has been married for over 20 years. [Source: Robert Lee, Korea Herald, September 19, 2010]

“A typical picture of Chuseok is a scene in which the men are gathered around the television or talking over a game of cards, with the women chatting in the kitchen preparing jeon — a Korean-style pancake with a wide variety of added ingredients.

“Some husbands were barred from helping their wives, for fear of repercussions from their parents. “When we first got married, no matter how difficult the workload was, my husband never helped because he had to make sure his parents were happy. He felt that by not helping with the work, he was in fact helping me in the long run,” said Lee Sung-ok.

“It is normal for a new bride to rarely see her own parents. “I had to meet the in-laws, get assigned a role to do this to do that, go shopping to make something for the in-laws, so I got sad about not being able to visit my own family,” said a woman surnamed Kim.” For many traditions have already disappeared. “Some younger generations do not even celebrate Chuseok in the traditional way. “Nowadays, a lot of the younger generations do not go back to their hometown. A lot of them choose to stay in Seoul and meet friends,” said Hong Jin-su.

Christmas in South Korea

Christmas is a big holiday in South Korea in part because so many Koreans are Christians. Both they and many non-Christians celebrate Christmas, when department stores are filled with Christmas ornaments, artificial trees and toys, and Christmas music is played everywhere. Koreans sends Christmas and New Year's cards. Unlike Japan, Christmas is an official public holiday so people have the day off from work and school, but they have go back on the 26th (Boxing Day). There's a longer official holiday around New Year.

According to Christmas celebrations are very similar to those found in Europe and the United States. Korean Christmas cards are generally less expensive than cards in the United States, and they often have peaceful outdoor scenes, Korean landscapes, or other artwork on them. Most cards will use the phrase "Season's Greetings" instead of "Merry Christmas" in order to appeal to a wider segment of the population. Christian churches in Korea hold traditional evening services on Christmas Eve as well as mass on Christmas Day, which often includes a baptismal service.Holiday cartoons and Christmas movies are popular seasonal entertainment in Korea, especially for children and families.

Korean Christmas traditions are less elaborate than most holiday celebrations in the West. Non-Christians may enjoy family gatherings and gift exchanges, but in general the holiday is much more subdued and it is not one of the largest holidays on the Korean calendar. In fact, for many families New Year's Day is a more important holiday and is spent celebrating with large gatherings, while Christmas celebrations are more popular with teens and children. Korean Christmas celebrations also do not have multiple gifts. Because the holiday is not as popular or widespread in Korea, it is more traditional to give a relative or close friend one thoughtful gift rather than several presents. Because of the Western influence that has brought Christmas to Korea, the celebrations also usually lack specific ceremonies to honor one's ancestors, which are normally a significant part of major Korean holidays.

Christmas Customs in South Korea

Koreans like to decorate things during the Christmas season. Decorations are set up in shops and restaurants and the homes of Christian. Particularly popular are small Christmas trees hung with cotton balls. On Christmas day most churches have a special program, which often features choirs singing the Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah. Koreans sometimes keep the Christmas decorations up well into March.

According to “Churches are decorated with lights. Most churches will have a service on Christmas day. Going to Church for Christmas is becoming more popular, even among non Christians. Department stores put on big displays of decorations. There's also an amazing display of lights in the capital city, Seoul. The lights are all over the city center including the bridges over the Han River. Presents are exchanged and a popular present is money! Giving actually gifts has become more popular, but giving money is still very common. Santa Claus can also be seen around Korea but he might be wearing red or blue! He's also known as “santa kullosu” or “Santa Grandfather”. A popular Christmas food is a Christmas Cake, but it's often a sponge cake covered in cream brought from a local bakery! Or you might even have an ice cream cake from a shop like 'Baskin Robbins'! [Source:]

According to “Young children eagerly await the arrival of Santa Haraboji, or Santa Grandfather, on Christmas Eve. Friends and family members may also exchange gifts for Christmas in Korea. Not every family in Korea will have a Christmas tree, but those that do will often decorate it with lights and ornaments similar to those found in the United States. A formal dinner is a popular way to celebrate the holiday with family members, though the menu usually includes popular Korean dishes such as sweet potato noodles, rice cake soup, barbecued beef (bulgogi), and spicy pickled cabbage (gimchi). Youth groups frequently organize caroling parties for Christmas in Korea. Starting from the church, they will visit the homes of older church members singing Christmas carols. It is traditional to invite carolers in for hot drinks and treats.

In early December 2009, 1,4000 South Korean volunteers dressed in Santa Claus suits marched through the streets following a ceremony to launch a year-end charity drive to help the poor. In 2008, motorcycle postmen, wearing Santa outfits, delivered gifts to disadvnatged children on Christmas Eve. [Source: AFP]

A secret Santa who has donated more than 81 million won (US$62,000) since 2000 came again to a the South Korean town of Jeonju. AFP reported: “Staff at a residents' centre in the southwestern city of Jeonju found a box containing 20 million won in a parking lot after a phone tip-off from the anonymous benefactor, the Korea Times said. "Cheer up, breadwinners," read a note. It said the man has left donations 10 times since 2000, not always at Christmas, but has never been spotted. Centre workers said they suspect the donor is not rich but a local resident who gives what he has managed to save each year. "We are glad that such a warm-hearted person lives here," Park Myeong-Hee, head of the residents' centre, was quoted as saying, adding that the money would be donated to 100 local families. [Source: VR Sreeraman, AFP, December 26, 2008]

Giant Christmas Tree at the DMZ: Propaganda?

In 2010, as troops stood guard and a choir sang carols, South Koreans lit a massive steel Christmas tree near Aegibong on a spot that overlooks the DMZ — world's most heavily armed border — and is within sight of atheist North Korea. The tree had 100,000 lights, likely making it visible as far away as Kaesong, one of the North’s most populated border cities.

Lee Jin-Man of Associated Press wrote: The lighting of the tree after a seven-year hiatus marked a pointed return to a tradition condemned in Pyongyang as propaganda. The provocative ceremony — which needed government permission — was also a sign that” South Korea was “serious about countering the North's aggression with measures of its own in the wake of an artillery attack that killed four South Koreans a month earlier. [Source: Lee Jin-Man, Associated Press, December Dec. 21, 2010]

The tree lighting was seen as a signal that the South is ready to play hardball until it sees real change from the North. Earlier, a South Korean destroyer prowled the sea and fighter jets tore across the skies in preparation for possible North Korean attacks a day after Seoul held a round of artillery drills from a front-line island.

“On Aegibong Peak, about a mile from the border that divides the Korean peninsula, marines toting rifles circled the Christmas tree as more than 100,000 twinkling lights blinked on. The brightly lit tree — with a cross on top — stood in stark relief to North Korea, where electricity is limited. Choir members dressed in white robes trimmed in blue and wearing red scarves and Santa Claus hats gathered beneath the steel structure draped with multicolored lights, illuminated stars and snowflakes. An audience of about 200 listened as they sang "Joy to the World" and other Christmas carols. "I hope that Christ's love and peace will spread to the North Korean people," said Lee Young-hoon, a pastor of the Seoul church that organized the lighting ceremony. About 30 percent of South Koreans are Christian.

“The 100-foot-tall (30-meter-tall) steel tree sits on a peak high enough for North Koreans living in border towns to see it and well within reach of their nation's artillery. Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said an attack from North Korea was certainly possible but unlikely.North Korea, officially atheist and with only a handful of sanctioned churches in Pyongyang with services for foreigners, warned that lighting the tree would constitute a "dangerous, rash act" with the potential to trigger a war.

“As a precaution, dozens of armed troops took up position around the site during the lighting ceremony. Ambulances and fire trucks were parked nearby. Instructions placed on chairs at the ceremony advised participants to take cover in case of an attack from North Korea. "The danger of the enemy's threat still exists," the leaflet read, suggesting that they hide behind concrete walls, crouch down between chairs and move quickly to shelters in case of an attack. The event took place uninterrupted.

“For decades, the rival Koreas have fought an ideological war, using leaflets, loudspeakers and radio broadcasts across the border. At the height of the propaganda, South Korea's military speakers blared messages near the border 20 hours a day, officials say. South Korea halted the campaign about seven years ago — including the longtime practice of lighting the huge Christmas tree — as ties between North and South warmed under an era of reconciliation. The church had sought government permission to light the tree over the years, but had been denied several years running.”

The lighting of a Christmas tree tower near the DMZ was an annual event for years until 2004, when the practice was suspended as part of an agreement between the two Koreas not to spread propaganda near the border. In 2011, the South Korean government approved plans for three such displays near the DMZ. A North Korean state-run Web site called those planned displays a form of “psychological warfare” and warned there would be “unexpected consequences” if the coalition of South Christian groups went ahead with the tree lightings. The displays were ultimately canceled in consideration of North Korea’s official period of mourning in the wake of the death of Kim Jong Il last December. The tree lighting was resumed in 2012 and but canceled in 2013 due to a military alert. In 2014, a 20-meter-high (60 foot) "Christmas" tower — with a giant illuminated cross — was pulled down after North and South Korea agreed to resume high-level talks. [Source: Jon Rabiroff and Yoo Kyong Chang, Stars and Stripes, December 21, 2012; AFP, AP, December 22, 2014]

Going Broke with Love-Related Holidays in South Korea

In 2006, Reuters reported: “Love comes at a hefty price in South Korea. There are up to 21 anniversaries, special days and celebrations a year for couples to shower each other with affection and gifts, and as a result some relationships are crushed under the weight of festivities. South Korean companies looked at the wild success of Valentine's Day celebrations in their country and found ways to sell their goods and services through a tie-up with love, marketing officials say. [Source: Reuters, January 2, 2006]

“Thanks to shrewd marketing in a society focused on commerce as well as love and matrimony, there is a special day on the 14th of each month for lovers to celebrate as well as a few other goodies along the way. For example, January 14 is Diary Day in South Korea when sweethearts are encouraged to buy gifts such as planners and mark all their red-letter days of love. Next on the calendar is February 14 and Valentine's Day, where South Korean women buy chocolates for their boyfriends. Army trucks are regularly deployed to deliver chocolates from women whose boyfriends are in uniform as part of South Korea's mandatory military service.

“March 14 is White Day. This celebration was born in Japan, imported to South Korea and is marked by South Korean men returning the favour of their Valentine's chocolates with sweets for their girlfriends. April 14 is Black Day and is purely Korean. This is a day where those who have not found love mark their status as lonely hearts by eating black food. The dish for the day is Chinese noodles topped with a thick black sauce. Single students at universities order scores of bowls and eat them together in the hope of finding a soul mate over noodles.May 15 is Yellow Day-Rose Day. Lonely hearts gather for curry and companionship. Those who find love by this day exchange roses. Dressing in yellow is also recommended. The rest of the celebrations that come each month on the 14th have yet to gain a strong following.

“Many couples celebrate the milestone of 100, 200, 300 and 1,000 days since the first time they met or went on their first date. Since calculating the milestones is quite difficult, many couples in the world's most wired country turn to the Internet for help. There are sites that calculate the special days for a person and send notice of an upcoming milestone with an e-mail or a text message over a mobile phone. "It must be so difficult for young people to keep their relationships going with so many special days," said Yoko Tagami, a Japanese essayist living in Seoul who has written on the subject. "It could even scare single men away from marrying."
Newspapers and lifestyle magazines often get into the act, especially for "First Snow Day." Lovers are supposed to mark the first snow of the winter season with a romantic date. Several media sources are awash with recommended spots and activities that will make young lovers' hearts flutter as they enjoy the sprinkling of snow.

“Christmas Eve is one of the biggest date nights of the year. It also marks the season of high prices as many businesses try to make a few extra won off lovers. Restaurants offer pricey Christmas menus, high-end jewellery stores are packed with young lovers purchasing non-discounted goods and even some love hotels raise prices for couples who want to stretch their Christmas Eve date into the morning.

“Some of the little-known days for lovers include August 14 Green Day when couples are supposed to dress in green, walk in the woods and drink cheap liquor that comes in green bottles. On Silver Day, couples can freely ask their friends to give them money to pay for a date while couples are supposed to exchange gifts made of silver. And of course, birthdays and actual one-year anniversaries are also major events on the calendar for couples. Couples, however, can feel the pinch of too many festivities. "I gave my boyfriend a gift soon after we went out and that just made his expectations bigger for more expensive gifts. I had to ask my parents for money for gifts, and in the end, we broke up because of the cost," said Kim Mi-yeon, a student.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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