Holidays In Korea
Like most cultures, Korea’s holidays bring together families, widen waistlines, and peak stress gauges. They also upend the country for a few days at a time.
Want to ride across Korea during this peak travel time? Good luck. Tickets for anything that runs on wheels, tracks, or jet engines sell out weeks in advance.
China, Japan, and other Asian nations celebrate similar holidays on the same dates. However, they give them different titles:
- Seollal — Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year, Spring Festival
- Chuseok — Mid-Autumn Festival, Moon Festival
Both celebrations share similar characteristics in Korean and abroad. A sizable chunk of the population picks up and moves, visiting hometowns, traveling overseas, or returning home from overseas.
Lunar + Solar = Lunisolar
So when are these holidays? If you use the western calendar, it depends.
Both Seollal and Chuseok follow the Korean lunisolar calendar, which tracks both the phases of the moons (lunar) and the earth’s trip around the sun (solar).
Therefore, each year, these holidays fall on different Gregorian calendar dates.
- Seollal lasts for three days between mid-January and late February
- Chuseok makes its three-day visit between early September and early October.
Where’d They All Go?
What’s it like on the streets during these massive twin holidays? Nothing.
Visit any part of Seoul when Seollal or Chuseok arrive. Typically packed subway stations sit empty. The expressways and roads clear out. Think early post-apocalypse. The rapture.
Where did they all go? Inside. Like America’s Thanksgiving or everywhere’s Christmas, it’s family time. Time for food, catching up, and gift giving.
Unlike other Western countries, you won’t find a sizable minority group to fill in the cracks. No Jews eating Chinese.
Bye, Bye Services
No people equals no shops.
Why? Why open your galbi restaurant (갈비) when everyone’s eating grandma’s kimchi? Why pay department store employees when everyone already bought gifts? And who’s buying a new car on the year’s most important holiday?
No one. Close them down.
Best Time to Travel
Don’t let the transportation and service sector collapse scare you from a bike trip.
With some planning and reserving, you’ll discover empty sidewalks, reduced city traffic, and cleared bike paths.
And not everything is closed. Essential services like McDonald’s, convenience stores, and motels keep the lights on. You can even find mom-and-pop eateries in landmark hotspots, serving fresh grub to vacay families.
Worst Time to Travel
Though a silent hum returns to city streets, Korea’s expressways, airports, and train stations inflate to capacity during Chuseok and Seollal. It feels like waiting in line on Everest.
The worst part? The traffic.
Yes, intercity buses offer the best transport for bikers in Korea. But they also share the road with every other Korean family car stuffed with snot leaking kiddos.
What about a train?
Yes. Trains offer the fastest path across Korea during the holidays. They avoid traffic and offer a simple boarding process.
But, two things:
- Only select trains on limited routes permit full-size bikes. (All allow folding bikes.)
- Tickets sell out faster than the BTS tickets.
- Trains that allow road, MTB, or hybrids hold five bicycle seats per train.
So plan far in advance and expect delays. Or just pedal to the bike paths. Probably faster. Definitely fewer headaches.
It’s difficult to compare religion in Korea to western countries. Most Koreans don’t saddle themselves with designations and denominations.
However, Confucianism informs much of the social framework. And the nation regards their Buddhist temples as cultural treasures.
Further complicating the picture, Korea’s Protestant Christians (20%) often exceed their western counterparts. Following dogma, they congregate every Sunday and beyond. They tithe ten percent of their income. And they infiltrate social groups to recruit.
Pockets of the populous celebrate other holidays, like Easter or Ramadan. And children adopted your Halloween and Valentine’s Day adornments. But school and work halts not.
Below, scan the list of Korea’s sanctioned holidays.
New Year's Day
Where is everybody? At home, snoring up a storm before waking at 2 AM to view a sunrise festival.
Korea maintains an ancient method of calculating age. Once practiced but then abandoned by other east Asian societies, the system works as thus:
- Babies are one-year-old upon birth.
- Your age doesn’t tick up on the actual date of your birth.
- Instead, everybody turns one year older on New Year’s Day.
So, yes. In Korea, you’re one (sometimes two) years older. Happy birthday, everyone!
On the second new moon after the winter solstice, sometime between January 22nd and February 19th, Korea stops for three days. Students abandon school. Workers drain from skyscrapers. Cars flood out of parking garages.
- Charye (차례) — In living rooms, families set a table of offerings, including fruits, beef, octopus, various jeon (전; savory pancakes), and tteokguk (떡국; rice cake soup). First, men bow to the departed’s pictures. Then everyone chows down.
- Sebae (세배) — Children and young adults perform a deep bow to their elders and wish them a happy new year. Elders reward them with pocket money (세뱃돈).
Independence Movement Day
From 1910 to the end of World War II (1945), Japan occupied Korea. Among the many tragedies perpetrated, the imperial nation:
- Enslaved girls and called them comfort women.
- Drafted men into war.
- Razed cultural landmarks.
- And forced Korean Olympians to compete wearing the Japanese flag.
On March 1st, 1919, thirty-three Korean activists took to the streets and read their declaration of independence. Arrests led to more demonstrations and skirmishes between the Imperial Army and independence militias.
No Excuses! Vote!
Korea breaks their elections into three.
- Presidential elections occur every five years.
- National National Assembly (congressional) elections happen every four years.
- Local elections run every two years.
Election Day (선거일) is a national holiday which always falls on a Wednesday. Schools and businesses shuttering.
(Because of the offset schedule, some years don’t have election days. Some have two.)
The exact dates? Okay, but it’s complicated.
- The nation holds presidential elections the first Wednesday 70 days before the current president’s term expires, as determined by their inauguration date.
- The National Assembly elections happen 50 days before their term expires.
So, yeah. Dates often change, especially if there’s a scandal, resignation, and arrest.
Election Day offers a good time to go for a bike ride if you’re not a Korean citizen over 18-years-old (19 Korean age). Why? No one travels. Everyone votes.
On the 8th day of the 4th lunar month, cities string lotus lanterns along public parks and streets. People invade temples and dine on free bowls of bibimbap prepared by benevolent monks.
In 1927, Korean students drew inspiration from the adults’ resistance to Japanese rule. So they conceived Children’s Day (어린이날), a day for elders to teach the latest generations about their heritage, which the Imperial conquers repressed.
Now, Children’s Day gives time for both hagwon-bound kids and overworked parents to visit parks, zoos, and museums together.
Oh, and scribbled into the fine print, the contract states, <small>kids shall receive a super awesome gift and can eat as many sweet things as they want, dad.</small>
Parents & Teachers, Too
Though not public holidays, Korea also gives teachers and parents days of their own.
- Parents Day (어버이날) falls every May 8th. It comes from the western celebrations of Mother’s and Father’s Day. Mom’s and dad’s may receive carnations and slightly better than normal behavior from their kids.
- Teacher’s Day (스승의날) arrives on May 15th, Sejong the Great’s birthday. In the past, teachers received gifts from students. But, because Korea notoriously ties academic performance to future economic opportunity, bribery became a common practice. Today, schools ban gift giving on Teacher’s Day.
On June 6th, sirens blare in commemoration. Loved ones and patriots visit fallen soldiers’ graves. And Seoul National Cemetery (국립서울현충원) holds a ceremony attended by the president and military leaders.
Though the nation ratified the constitution on July 12th, 1948, someone had the clever idea to hold back its official adoption for five days.
National Liberation Day
On August 15th, the president attends ceremonies, museums and public transportation wave their fees, and every household, public building, and Hyundai SUV displays the Korean flag.
Chuseok shares many similarities with Seollal.
- Chuseok is one of Korea’s most important holidays.
- Many other Asian nations commemorate the same lunar date. China calls theirs the Mid-Autumn Festival. In Vietnam, it’s named Tết Trung Thu.
- Families visit the sleep over at the eldest male’s place, before rising early, wearing hanboks, performing ceremonies on Chuseok day, including:
- Charye (차례) — Families set an offering table around pictures of deceased loved ones containing traditional foods like songpyeon (송편; sweet rice cakes), jeon (전; savory pancakes), and japchae (잡채; glass noodles).
- Seongmyo (성묘) and Beolcho (벌초) — Families visit the cemeteries, place offerings on the departed’s graves, perform a bowing ritual, then tidy up the grounds.
Also like Seollal, Chuseok follows the lunisolar calendar, lasting for three days between September 8th and October 6th.
However, the holiday often collides with a weekend. Families often use the extra off-days to venture out on a vacay, clogging Korea’s transportation arteries for five or six days.
National Foundation Day
Curious, a bear and tiger emerged from a nearby cave and prayed to him. Hwanung gave the beasts garlic and mugwort, then promised he’d turn them into humans if they stayed in their cave for 100 days.
While an ancient story, National Foundation Day ties itself to the international calendar and occurs every October 3rd.
No people equals no shops.
So, he commissioned a simple writing system that uses a simple, 24-letter alphabet, each with a fixed phonetic sound. The shape of each letter mimics the tongue’s position when speaking.
After centuries of resistance from elites, hangul became the official writing system in the 1900s, leading to South Korea’s current 97.2% literacy rate. (100% in North Korea, apparently.)
Why? Two reasons.
Today, around 30% of Koreans call themselves Christians. Protestants (20%), in particular, boast a booming voice. They proselytize, promote patriotism, and seek high office. Their gained clout embedded Christianity in the national identity.
Second, money & fun. Walk around Myeongdong (명동) in December. Christmas glitters on every corner, in every storefront window of the famous shopping neighborhood. Throughout the world, Christmas, with its snowmen, fat red man, and reindeer, drive conspicuous consumption.
Find a monthly calendar listing South Korea’s public holidays below.