Familiarly known as the Chinese New Year in the West, Koreans call this special day, “설.” Pronounced as Seol, it is one of the most celebrated holidays in Korea as families come together from afar, engage in festivities, and prepare deicious foods to celebrate the first day of a new lunar calendar. Yet, behind all the festivities, there is a deeper meaning associated with this holiday: it is a time of prayer and reflection as we hope together that the New Year will be full of blessings and happiness.
This meaning of blessings can be found in many of the activities performed during 설. Foremost, the name “설” is derived from the word “섧다” meaning “sorrow” and “restrained.” Thus, during “설,” people refrain from going out, and families gather together to pray that the New Year will be safe, peaceful and more prosperous than the last.
As families gather together, they greet each other with “덕담,” – words of blessings wishing one another a promising New Year. An interesting aspect of ”덕담” is that it is said in the past tense, as if the blessings had already happened: “Did you have a good year? I heard a new baby was born this year?” This kind of tradition has been passed down for generations, and it is rooted in the belief that if the first words you hear in the New Year are a blessing, that year will hold promises of good things to come.
Lastly, during “설,” people put up special paintings, objects, and ornaments in their house to expel evil spirits and to bring in blessings and happiness. “세화,” a special painting that is put up inside a room, is believed to push away evil spirits from entering the house. The painting below on the far right shows a rising sun breaking through a sea of clouds whose emergence is met by a rooster’s morning call. In addition to paintings, objects with pockets at the end, such as the one below on the far left, are hung above the bedroom doors in the early morning hours of the New Year’s day. These objects are called “복조리,” and like Christmas stockings, people hope that these will be filled with blessings in the coming New Year. Finally, on the front doors, people attach “부적,”a form of talisman, to prevent evil spirits from entering the house. Although rarely practiced today, it was believed that these kinds of talisman would scare away evil spirits and stop them from ruining the start of a New Year.