Korea is a kaleidoscope of traditions, festivals, and rituals. I’ve loved everything about them. And so I wanted to share this list of Korean traditions with you.
When I was younger I used to celebrate these festivals with gusto.
Eating delicious food, wearing beautiful hanboks, participating in rituals, all of these things have very pleasant associations attached to them.
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One of my chief aspirations is to introduce this wondrous Korean culture to everyone else in the world.
So I decided to write this article and make a list of Korean traditions and festivals that are so popular in my country.
Korean Traditional Festivals 2021
I think this article would be incomplete without mentioning Seollal or the Lunar New Year’s Day. It’s perhaps the biggest festival in South Korea.
Seollal marks the first day of the Korean calendar. Although it’s celebrated over a 3 day period, the actual New Year’s falls on the middle day.
Usually Seollal falls near the weekend making it a 5-day holiday.
On this day, you’ll see Korean citizens of all ages donning the traditional Hanbok and paying respects to their ancestors and elders.
They perform a ritual called “Charye” which is supposed to honor their ancestors. Along with this ritual bowing to your elders or the traditional New Year’s Bow “Sebae” is very important.
Playing folk games such as Yunnori, where people match the opposite sides of wooden sticks are also common scenes.
This is another festival that has ties with the Lunar calendar. Daeboreum is celebrated on the first full moon of the Lunar Year.
It’s fun to observe how certain practices and rituals have their basis in practicality and common sense.
Did you know that the full moon was an indicator to farmers to start working on their land?
There are also other rituals observed during this day such as burning stacks of hay and rolling cans full of charcoal around a field.
While today they remain just traditions to be followed and repeated, once upon a time these were scientifically sound farming practices.
The gases released from the burning stacks of hay helped fertilize the soil and grow the crops. And smoke from the charcoal cans was good for keeping rats and other vermin away from the field.
The Meoseumnal is not observed anymore. But it’s still a great way to reflect on our past.
This festival has its roots in Korean culture’s feudal origins. Serfdom was widespread in ancient Korea, and rich landowners often had servants to till their land and do their bidding.
Meoseumnal was a sort of holiday for these servants. The wealthy masters would provide their servants with extra money, food, clothing, etc. and give them some free time to enjoy themselves.
Samjinnal is a spring festival and hence it’s one of my absolute favourites! It’s also called the double third festival.
This festival is celebrated on the third day of the third month. Why all the threes, you ask? Well, Koreans consider the number 3 to be lucky.
And Samjinnal was considered an auspicious day because it signifies a new cycle of life after a hard winter.
As the days grow steadily less colder, birds, insects, and wildlife return to their homes. Korean’s believed that this was a sign of coming fortune.
Samjinnal is celebrated by cooking traditional rice cakes and noodles and drinking wine made of Azalea flowers called Dugyeonju.
Fairs are a common sight during this period, where you can see activities like fortune-telling, rooster fighting, archery, and more.
You would have noticed how a lot of Korean festivals are centred around farming. And Hansik is no different.
Celebrated 105 days after the winter solstice, Hansik signals the beginning of the farming period.
During this day, only cold food is eaten, so sometimes people call this festival the Cold Food Festival.
A lot of mugwort dishes are consumed during this festival. You’ll find mugwort cake, mugwort soup, and even mugwort dumplings.
Another important aspect of this day is the ancestral prayers. Koreans from all over the country visit the Jongmyo Shrine to perform sacrificial rites.
Hold up, I hope you’re not thinking that cold food means yummy dishes are not prepared on this day. You are allowed to create food just not by using fire.
People also perform memorial services and visit the graves of their family members during this day.
It’s believed that their blessings are essential for starting the farming period.
Buddha’s Birthday (Chopail)
A lot of people in South Korea follow Buddhism. So it’s no surprise that Chopail is celebrated with such gusto in the country.
A very interesting part of this holiday are the lotus lanterns. Every year during Buddha’s Birthday, Korean families get colourful lanterns to decorate their homes with.
The number of lanterns corresponds to the number of family members.
While lotus flowers are the most popular lantern shapes, you’ll find a lot of other symbols related to Buddhism like fish, fruits, turtles, and other flowers.
A lot of people also visit Buddhist shrines and offer prayers during this day.
Chuseok is often confused with the Lunar New Year or Seollal. However, these two are very different holidays.
While Seollal marks the beginning of the Korean calendar, Chuseok falls on the 15th day of the 8th Lunar month. This day is also a full moon.
I am a sucker for the amazing dishes prepared during Chuseok like Torantang, Galbi (beef or pork ribs), Songpyeon (a traditional Korean rice cake).
What fascinated me the most about this festival is the variety of games and festivities we get to see.
You’ll see Ssireum or traditional Korean wrestling, arrow shooting, tug-of-war and so many others.
If it’s one thing Korean festivals know, it’s how to take advantage of the brilliant sunshine-y weather.
Dano is another amazing spring festival. On this day, women wash their hair with a special concoction made of changpo (sweet flag).
It’s also customary to wear red and blue and weave iris flowers on their head to ward off evil spirits.
As the weather’s growing hotter with the arrival of summer, Korean gift their friends and family fans to beat the heat.
Yudu festival is celebrated during peak summer.
It’s a harvest festival too, but instead of praying for good crops, Yudu is more about giving thanks for the bountiful harvest.
Farmers offer a portion of their best fruits, grains, and other crops as offerings to the harvest gods to ensure a good reaping every year.
There is another delightful tradition that takes place every year at Yudu. People often go wash their hair in a creek that flows east.
It’s believed that doing so will help get rid of bad luck accumulated through the year.
I think a lot of people in the west will be familiar with Doljabi thanks to K-dramas and other pop culture references.
Doljabi is a bit different from the other festivals here. It’s more of a ritual that is followed by parents on their child’s first birthday.
Here the kid is dressed in traditional Korean garb and is surrounded by certain items like books, money, a musical instrument, a stethoscope, sports gear, etc.
Then, it’s up to the kiddo to choose from these objects.
It’s believed that whatever the kid chooses will be their path in life.
For example, if the child picks books, they are going to be intellectual, if they choose a stethoscope, they’ll go into the medical field.
You never know if this is actually a real prediction or something to soothe the anxiety of new parents. But it’s still a very fun ritual!
I’ve discussed all the Korean traditions relating to the New Year’s Day. But did you know there’s a festival to celebrate the last day of the year as well.
Yes, it’s called the Seotdal Geumeum! The Korean traditions relating to this festival involves the use of loud noises to drive evil spirits away.
Seeing people in masks making loud noises in public places is a common spectacle during Seotdal Geumeum.
This day is also used by people to prepare for the upcoming new year.
National Korean Holidays
There are also certain Korean traditions that might not be religious festivals or events but are still a part of Korean culture.
These are the Korean national holidays that the public observes. Some of these holidays include:
Gwangbokjeol – Also called the “National Liberation Day”, this holiday is celebrated to mark Korea’s victory and liberation from Japan during the second world war. Gwangbokjeol falls on the 15th of August.
Hangeul Day – This day is celerbated on the 9th of October. It marks the anniversary of the invention of the Hangul letters or the official Korean writing system.
Jeheonjeol – Jeheonjeol is the Korean “Consitution Day”. It is celebrated on the 17th of July to mark the anniversary of Korea getting it’s own constitution during 1948.
Gaecheonjeol – This national holiday celebrates the anniversary of the formation of the first Korean state back in 233 BCE. It’s celebrated on the 3rd day of the 10th lunar month.
FAQs – Korean Traditions and Festivals
What religion is in South Korea?
According to a 2015 survey, at least 44 percent of South Koreans identified themselves with a religion.
There are several religious identities you can find in Korean culture including Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shamanisn.
However, a large majority of Koreans are either followers of Christianity or Buddhism.
There are several tribal religions as well such as Cheondogyo, Jeuongsangyo, Daejyongyo, and Won Buddhism.
What is the biggest holiday in Korea?
There are several holidays in Korea that are celebrated with much enthusiasm. But probably the biggest among them is Chuseok or Lunar New Year’s Day. This festival is held on the 15th of the 8th month in the Lunar Calendar.
Is it rude to leave food in Korea?
Yes, it is considered rude and wasteful to leave food on your plate in Korean culture.
If you’re out dining in a Korea person’s house, I’d suggest taking a smaller portion so you don’t have any leftovers.
Festivals, customs, traditions – these are the things that make up a culture.
And I’ve loved sharing my knowledge about how South Korea celebrates and what Korean traditions it follows.
These things might seem quaint to an outside observer, but the clothes, practices, food, and mythology surrounding these festivals give them an irresistible charm.