As Seollal (설날) approaches, preparations for the New Year’s celebrations has really driven my reflection about the different celebrations that I have had in past years. Growing up as a Korean in America, I was fortunate to have observed and participated in many different customs and celebrations– American, Korean, as well as others celebrated by friends and neighbors. Celebrating the new year seems to be a large celebratory event observed by many different traditions and it is interesting to see the little unique quirks and rituals that each culture brings.
[New Year’s Party]
In America, the celebration of the New Year begins with an extravagant New Year’s Eve party starting on December 31st and lasting into the new year. The transition is marked by a countdown to midnight, a firework show, and popping a bottle of champagne. There’s also a saying that goes, “kiss the person you hope to keep kissing,” so taking a lead from common movie and TV scenes, many younger partygoers often have a fantasy to share a magically romantic kiss with their crush at a New Year’s Eve party right as the clock strikes 12, with the fireworks going off in the background.
Of course, when I was younger, the festivities were much more family oriented. Many families usually either buy fireworks and sparklers and make a mini-light show in their backyard or take a drive and flock to waterfront locations and huddle together with blankets to watch the firework shows over the water. I can still feel the crisp night air against my cheeks, my voice hoarse from cheering and my hands warm from clapping, as I recall my most memorable firework show– the one that ended with a Pokémon special. Back when sophisticated designs were rare, I remember being mesmerized by the bright yellow ball of light, then laughing in surprise as the sparkles of light resolved into the face of Pikachu.
Occasionally, in years where we were too lazy to go out, we would just stay at home and cuddle around the couch, dancing around the living room in our pajamas as we counted down the last moments of the year. We would turn on the TV and join various celebrations all around the world, like watching the ball drop in New York City’s Times Square or seeing the fireworks show over the Sydney Opera House. It was quite exciting just to imagine what fresh new adventures we will face and where the next year will take us.
[Korean New Year celebration]
But of course, as Korean Americans, January 1st was not the only New Year that we celebrated. When February rolled around, we began preparations for Seollal, or the Lunar New Year, which usually occurs around early to mid-February.
Traditionally, the New Year is an important date in Korea for ancestral rites, and so there are a number of important customs and rituals to pay respects to ancestral spirits, the most important being charye. As a more Christian family, our family wasn’t as dedicated to these traditions. However, no matter the belief system, it was hard to turn away the perfect opportunity to enjoy the delicious traditional jaesa food, and so my brother and I would wait patiently as my grandfather conducted the ceremony, then fill up on my grandma’s delicious specialties like jeon, japchae, and traditional Korean sweets. Afterwards, as a ritual of respect for elders in the family, the younger family members perform sebae, or a traditional New Year’s bow while earnestly wishing “새해 복 많이 받으세요,” hoping that the new year bestows luck and blessings onto the elders. Although my brother and I would at first grumble about having to learn the complicated rules, but as our bokjumoni began to fill with saebaetdon, it’s hard to say that we didn’t work harder.
My brother and I were fortunate that our family had been able to hold on to many of these Korean traditions, but of course, we did lose out on some traditions as well, such as playing folk games, like yutnori. In recent years, as I spend more time in Korea, it is exciting to see the different emphasis on aspects of Korean culture in the New Year celebrations. One thing that always throws me off still to this day is the different age systems between Korea and most other parts of the world, as in Korea, you gain a year not on your birthday, but rather on New Year’s Day. Although our family always had ddukguk on Seollal, I only recently learned that it is believed that through eating this soup filled with thinly sliced rice cakes, you get one year older. Maybe I have been inadvertently aging too quickly because I’ve had too many bowls of my grandma’s delicious soup!
Reflecting back, it has been very special to have been able to hold on to this part of our culture, even halfway across the world and more importantly to share it with friends and neighbors. There are more than 2.5 million Koreans living in the US, and more than 200,000 in Washington State, where I used to live. I am truly grateful to the strong cultural pride of the Korean communities in gathering volunteers at churches and language schools to prepare events and teach the young Korean generations about the culture despite the busy working schedules and the large geographic separation from their home country. Furthermore, it was truly touching to see how many American families with adopted children from Eastern countries like China and Korea, put the additional effort to learn about their child’s ethnic culture and really encourage their child’s natural curiosity for their birth country and culture. In moments like these, I am truly inspired by the ability of unconditional love to transcend superficial boundaries, like race or nationality.
[Croatian New Year Celebration]
Recently, I went on a trip to Croatia and, curious to learn about Croatian specialties and festivities, I asked some friends about some of their traditional New Year’s customs and beliefs. Croatia similarly hosts many firework shows in larger cities, where friends gather at celebrations in public squares. A rowdy night is usually spent with arms wrapped around friends’ shoulders, filled with drinking and singing deep into the night. Then, in the morning, as a hangover cure, Croatians enjoy sarma, a hearty fermented cabbage roll stuffed with meat and other goodies.
In Croatia, there’s a saying that “Kako dočekate ponoć, takva će vam biti cijela godina,” meaning that the upcoming year will be exactly like how you spend your night on New Year’s Eve. For example, if you spend your NYE with friends, you’ll spend a lot of time with friends in the new year and if you eat good food and wine one NYE, you’ll enjoy good food and wine in the upcoming year. A similar belief is that your actions on New Year’s Day are expected to repeat all year round in the upcoming year, so make sure to behave well and avoid working too hard or you may be doomed to repeat it all year!
There are also many interesting folk sayings, many of which outline customs and rituals to bring luck and prosperity in the new year. For example, on New Year’s Day, there is a little ritual of washing one’s face in clean water with an apple with a coin inside of it to bring health and wealth all throughout the new year. In terms of food, there are some foods that Croatian people tend to avoid on NYE, like chicken, rabbits, and fish in hopes to optimize one’s prospects – chicken rummage and bring bad luck, rabbits run and carry your happiness away, and ‘prosperity will swim away from the house with the fish.’ Instead, common staples of the New Year’s meal include pork (pigs dig soil, bringing heaps of good luck and wealth) as well as lentils, which look like coins. Make sure to fill up on a lot of lentils, as the more you eat, the more wealth you will have in the new year. Also, making doughnuts or cake on New Year’s Day is usually a must for many families, as it is said that fortune and the new year ahead will rise as high as the dough or cake. I’ve got a weak spot for sweets and fried food, so maybe I’ll incorporate some of these customs into my own New Year’s Eve celebrations and see if my fortune and health rise as well!
Reflecting on past traditions, it’s interesting to see how the celebration of the new year will change in years to come. One thing that COVID has brought to our attention is that our celebrations are often filled with large gatherings and public events, and it was a big shock to compare and contrast the differences between the celebrations this year to those in years past. Another thing to consider is, as environmental and social concerns continue to grow, which traditions are best left in the past and which will change to meet the needs of the changing world? For example, in some parts of the world, fireworks are being replaced by drone shows, a much more environmentally conscious option for extravagant light shows in the night sky. This makes me wonder, how will the new year look in future years?
Does your family or culture have any unique New Year’s traditions? How did you celebrate the New Year this year?