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Lunar New Year set to shine on peninsula

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- The Republic of Korea's highways and byways will become what many consider the world's largest parking lot Feb. 6 as millions of Koreans head to their hometowns to celebrate the most important holiday of the year, Seollal (Sol lal) or Lunar New Year's Day.

New Year's Day falls on Feb. 7, but because of the holiday's cultural significance, the country sets aside three days, Feb. 6 to 8, to celebrate.

Traveling anywhere south of Seoul can be an adventure during the holiday. What is usually a two-hour drive from Seoul to Daejeon can take four or five hours, according to the Web site, Tour2Korea.com.

The site also states that many parents who live in smaller provinces now travel to Seoul to allow their children to avoid the millions of people who exit Seoul for cities in the south and east. The nation's radio transportation broadcasting program provides live updates on the status of highway condition throughout the holiday.

Many families prepare for the holiday by shopping for gifts for their parents and children.

Meat, fish, fruit, tteokguk (Duk gook) or rice cake soup, and various types of wild vegetables are popular purchases as they are required for the ancestral rites performed during the New Year celebration, according to the Web site.

Gift tickets, similar to gift cards, and health care products are popular gift items.
Parents of preschool or elementary school children also search for the traditional dress called Hanbok (Han boke), or a set of new clothes, Seolbim (Soul bim), to present as gifts. Children dressed in their finest Hanbok or Seolbim then bow, called Sebae (Say bay), to their elder relatives to show respect.

Children, young and old, often receive "New Year's money," called Sebaedon (Say bay don) after paying their respects. Another popular purchase is a train ticket. Thousands of people try to avoid the traffic jams by reserving train tickets at least a month in advance.

Not only do the travelers have to prepare, the families receiving guests must prepare their homes for the onslaught of extended family members. Mothers must prepare food for the guests as well as prepare for the ancestor rites. Money must be divided for children and grandchildren, and some farmers also prepare agriculture products for their children to take back home.

Key to the New Year celebration is Charye, (char ray) or an offering of food and drink to departed family members. Foods such as vegetables, soups, meat, fish, rice and fruits are presented to the ancestors on a table. 

Family members burn incense, pour wine as an offering and the eldest male bows to pictures of deceased members or strips of paper with the names of deceased family members. Other family members follow, most often in order of seniority. After the ancestors have had time to "feast" the food is removed.

According to Korean tradition, ancestors return on New Year's to enjoy the food prepared for them.

Following the ceremony, many families eat the traditional tteokguk or rice cake soup. Tradition says that eating the soup on New Year's Day adds one year to a person's age.

Following the meal, men in the family typically visit ancestors' graves and perform a simplified Charye ritual and then remove weeds, cut the grass and generally clean up the site.

The remainder of the day is reserved for traditional games such as yut nori or gostop, a Korean card game. Seollal is also peak season for movie theaters. Many Koreans now visit overseas destinations during the holiday season.

The international airport at Incheon is extremely busy during this period.

Also, in the past, many Koreans prepared for the New Year by observing the rites of Sottal (So tall) during the final month of the year.

It's a time when people should set things in order and settle accounts before the New Year arrives. Tradition says an honorable man should not carry debts over to a new year.

It also says people should stay awake on New Year's Eve or Kum mun nal (Coo moon nal) and young children are told that their eyebrows will turn white if they fall asleep.

The myth sometimes came true if an older relative put flour on a sleeping child's eyebrows. In some rural areas, evil spirits are expelled and good fortune ushered in on this day by a farmers' band. (Information courtesy of Korean Overseas Information Service)

Editor's note: This story marks the first in a series of articles on the Korean culture. If you have questions about the Korean culture or topics you would like to see covered by the 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office, call at DSN: 315-784-4044, commercial: 011-82-31-661-4044 or e-mail 51fwpa@osan.af.mil