The Korea Herald


Changing face of Lunar New Year holiday in Korea

By 이우영

Published : Feb. 5, 2016 - 16:03

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A mass migration is underway this weekend as tens of thousands of Koreans travel home for the Lunar New Year, Seollal. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport estimates that a total of 36 million will be on the move, about 70 percent of the total population.

Early in the morning on Monday, Lunar New Year’s Day, families will dress in traditional hanbok for the ancestral rite, charye, during which they will pay respect to their late ancestors. Dozens of dishes will be laid out on the charye table for the rite, prepared by female family members over several days ahead of Seollal. There will be a big family breakfast, and of course the requisite sebae -- deep bows offered to the family elders wishing them a happy, healthy new year. The elders, in return, offer some wise words, and the young ones get cash gifts as well.
A persimmon tree at Seonunsa Temple in Gochang, North Jeolla Province. (Korea Tourism Organization) A persimmon tree at Seonunsa Temple in Gochang, North Jeolla Province. (Korea Tourism Organization)

This typical Lunar New Year’s Day scene has been changing as the traditional Confucian values that have ruled Korean families for centuries are fading. Rather than abiding by traditional customs, an increasing number of people are using the long holiday as a chance to take a break from the hectic pace of modern life.

Travel figures show the changing face of the Korean traditional holiday.

A large number of Koreans will travel abroad during the long weekend this year. According to a survey released by the Korea Transport Institute on Feb. 2, some 634,000 Koreans are planning to travel overseas.

This year, Koreans have a five-day Lunar New Year holiday, stretching out from Saturday to Wednesday. An extra holiday was added to the usual three-day holiday as the official Seollal holiday begins on Sunday. Not surprisingly, many people are trying to make the most of the extra-long holiday.

Incheon International Airport expects the number of people flying in or out of Korea during the holiday to increase by 16 percent compared to the same period last year. It estimates that the largest exodus will take place on Saturday with 97,532 Koreans catching international flights.

“More people are taking advantage of the longer holiday to travel to destinations as far as North America and Hawaii,” said Oh Seung-hwan of Hana Tour, one of the country’s largest tour companies.

Hana Tour has seen the number of travel package bookings for Hawaii in February increase twofold compared to last year. 

“But still many people go on a family trip to countries that are closer, such as Japan, China and Southeast Asian countries,” said Oh.

The traditional Lunar New Year faces a new trend as more Koreans now view the holiday as a good opportunity to travel overseas.

“I usually go on a trip abroad during traditional holidays. I have been to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Spain, Portugal, Prague, east and west coast of the United States,” said Lee Ko-eun, a 37-year-old office worker.

“It’s a time for me to unwind from my work,” she said.

This year, she will go to Boracay in the Philippines with her sister. “You can just take a couple of days off from work and enjoy a longer holiday this year,” she said.

Even those who do not go abroad might not necessarily stay at home. There will be plenty of events at national museums, royal palaces and public cultural places across the country. Not to mention family friendly and entertaining movies at movie theaters and relaxing packages at local hotels. 
Kite flying is one of the traditional celebrations on the Lunar New Year holiday. (Korea Tourism Organization) Kite flying is one of the traditional celebrations on the Lunar New Year holiday. (Korea Tourism Organization)

“Museums and royal palaces will be open throughout the holiday. When you see small food vendors setting up tents in front of our museum for the holiday period, we can predict that there will be many visitors this year,” said Cheon Jin-ki, director of the National Folk Museum. He expects to see around 100,000 visitors participating in more than 30 kinds of Seollal programs held during the five-day holiday. 

“Museums are some of the places where you can see and experience traditional Seollal whose meaning has been fading in the modern society,” Cheon added. “Each year, more and more multicultural families and Chinese residents in Korea as well as tourists come to the museum to experience traditional aspects of Korean Seollal.”

By Lee Woo-young (