A Culture Lesson: Korean National Holidays
Updated: May 15, 2021
For many students, winter break is just around the corner. Whether one likes winter break or not, it is pretty clear which holiday it is calendared around; namely Christmas. Holidays are fickle things, some are religion based, others depend on culture and heritage, monumental parts of history, and then there’s the random ‘donut days’ here and there. Furthermore, holidays are constantly being updated and changed due to public outcry, think Columbus day and more. In one of my classes we were discussing why exactly America prioritizes certain holidays over others, and how politics can have a heavy influence on these decisions. One of the main points expressed was that America is statistically quite diverse, so why do we really only declare national holidays based on the values of the original founding fathers and European colonists? This got me thinking about all the holidays I do and do not celebrate. Additionally, what are holidays of other cultures and religions that I am unaware of and why am I unaware of them? I came to the conclusion that, in general, there should be more easily accessible information about major holidays from different places around the world. Originally, I wanted to write this about Asian holidays from all over Asia. However, I don’t think I am knowledgeable enough to speak about a lot of countries and regions in Asia. Therefore, this article will be only about national Korean holidays.
Please keep in mind, like any other country, many of these holidays are from other places while some are only Korean. Furthermore, I only included the holidays that I am familiar with and trust myself to explain to a degree.
Like the majority of other countries, South Korea follows the Gregorian Calendar. This means that on 12:00am on Jan 1st, it is officially the new year for both Korea and much of the world. I don’t think this needs much of an explanation aside from that.
Lunar New Year (설날)
Lunar New Year generally falls between January and February on the Solar calendar. It is observed throughout most of Asia but individual countries have their own, unique way of celebrating it. Some prominent aspects of this holiday in Korea are Sebae (세배), Charye (차례), and of course, a lot of food. Sebae (I’m going to use romanization because not everyone can read Hangul…) is the act of bowing to elders, think grandparents, as an act of respect. Usually children wear traditional clothing and bow deeply, wishing their elders a good new year. In response, the elders will give the children money. Charye is the worshipping of one's ancestors during the Lunar New Year. Food and family tablets can be set out on alters to deceased loved ones. Traditional food can include tteok - rice cake, generally as a soup (tteokguk) and other things like green onion pancakes.
Buddha’s Birthday - 8th day of the 4th Lunar month
The major religions in Korea are Christianity and Buddhism. A lot of events occur in the weeks leading up to the specific day. This includes a large lotus lantern festival that begins at a major Buddhist University and winds throughout Seoul. From brightly colored paper lanterns to winding dragons, it is a celebration of culture. Additionally, many people go to Buddhist temples to pay their respects.
Memorial Day - June 6th
Similar to the US and many other countries, Korea has a holiday to remember and respect those who have lost their lives serving in the military. There is always a remembrance ceremony at the National Cemetery in Seoul. Additionally, at 10am KST, a siren rings throughout the entire country signaling a moment of silence.
Liberation Day (광복절) - August 15th (and 17th)
Unlike the US, Korea has been an established civilization for a very long time, specifically since 2333 B.C. This Liberation Day is not in reference to that date, it is to celebrate Korea’s Independence from Japanese occupation in 1945. The actual Korean name, 광복절 (gwangbokjeol) means ‘Restoration of Light’ in reference to the dark times Korea had as a nation under occupation. During this day, Korean flags are hung throughout the country and there is an official ceremony held as well.
Chuseok (추석) - 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar on the full moon
Chuseok, also known as Hangawi (한가위), is most commonly compared to American thanksgiving, yet while some of the values are similar, it is not the same. Chuseok falls during the Fall Harvest Moon and its main purpose is to celebrate and express gratitude. Families gather in their hometowns, creating awful traffic throughout the country. Customs include Charye and Beolcho (벌초) which both include honoring ancestors, additionally people sometimes give gifts. Popular foods include Songpyeon (송편) - a type of rice cake usually filled with red bean paste/sesame/etc, Japchae (잡채) - clear noodles stir-fried in sesame oil with vegetables and meat, and much more. Though Chuseok is mainly celebrated in both North and South Korea, many Korean Americans observe it as well.
It is important to first recognize that while Korea does not have an official religion, the two dominant religions are Christianity and Buddhism. Obviously, Buddhism has extremely deep roots throughout many Asian countries, whereas Christianity was introduced by Chinese scholars and later spread by French and Chinese missionaries. Christmas is celebrated in Korea just as it is in the US. However, there appears to be less of an emphasis on a holiday season (think Dec). Keep in mind that there are plenty of people who don’t celebrate it and many who celebrate it without identifying as Christian.
Other national holidays include Children’s Day, the National Assembly Election Day, Independence Movement Day, National Foundation Day and Hangul Day.
I hope you learned something and have a good day!