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Holidays In Korea

Avoid delays and enjoy the holidays while biking 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.

During Chuseok and Seollal, everyone visits family. Half the country empties their high-rise apartments and clogs expressways, bloats trains, and stuffs into intercity buses.

A picture of a Charye (차례) offering table, displaying fruit, meat, and other offerings for departed loved ones.
Families hold a Charye (차례) offering table during Seollal and Chuseok. Fruit, meat, and other offerings are set out for departed loved ones.

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. 

Don’t fear! First, let’s review tips for riding a bike on Korea’s holidays. Then we’ll explore the nation’s important cultural bank holidays and view a monthly calendar.

Holiday Tips

Christians have Christmas and Easter. Jews have Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Korea has Seollal (설날) and Chuseok (추석).

China, Japan, and other Asian nations celebrate similar holidays on the same dates. However, they give them different titles:

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.
A picture of the Yeongsangang Bike Path near Mokpo City in South Korea.
The major Korean holiday's of Chuseok and Seollal pull many riders inside, leaving some bike paths empy.

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.

Chuseok also brings ideal, early autumn days. And Seollal… Well, winter brings a unique beauty. Just cover your head and hands.

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.

A picture of a munghwanga train along the Nakdonggang Bicycle Path near Yangsan, South Korea.
If you can get a ticket, take a train come holiday season. It skips the congested expressways.

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.

If you can find a bus ticket, glance at your estimated travel time and double it. One hour equals two. Three equals six. Oh, you’re going from Seoul to Busan? Bring a pillow.

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:

So plan far in advance and expect delays. Or just pedal to the bike paths. Probably faster. Definitely fewer headaches.

Religions in Korea

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.

Other religions in Korea include Catholicism (8%), Shamanism, Mormonism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The latter two gained visibility for proselytizing to any two-legger with an ear.

Holiday List

Korea has twelve recognized red days (공휴일), a.k.a. public holidays. On these days, schools close, banks lock the vaults, and chaebols loosen their shackles.

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

(새해 첫날)
January 1st
Happy New Year! Predawn, many Koreans venture to the coast to watch the first sunrise of the year.

Want to find revelry and merriment on New Year’s Eve? Don’t expect diaper-equipped Times Square hordes. Come midnight, slurred countdowns ring out only in Itaewon and Hongdae’s bars.

Where is everybody? At home, snoring up a storm before waking at 2 AM to view a sunrise festival.

However, New Year’s Day (새해 첫날) in Korea isn’t without the marking of time’s passage.

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!

Seollal

(새해)
3 days; Jan 22 ~ Feb 19

Korea names their Lunar New Year Celebration Seollal (설날; or Korean New Year). Sitting one notch above Chuseok, it is Korea’s most important cultural and national holiday.

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.

Most visit the home of the oldest living male, father or eldest brother, the night before and sleep. The family then wakes up early, don hanboks (한복), then performs a few ceremonies:

A picture of fried jeon prepared for a Seollal celebration in South Korea.
A picture of fried jeon (전; savory pancakes) prepared for a Seollal celebration in South Korea.
  • Charye (차례) — In living rooms, families set a table of offerings, including fruits, beef, octopus, various jeon (; 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).

Most of Asia and the diaspora celebrate this holiday. Also known as Chinese New Year, Mongolians call it Tsagaan Sar. Vietnamese name their Tết. In Tibet, it’s Losar.

Independence Movement Day

(3·1절)
March 1st

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.

Today, Independence Movement Day (3·1절) commemorates the protestors’ declaration of Korea’s sovereignty.

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.

Buddha's Birthday

(부처님오신날)
1 day; Apr 30 ~ May 30
A picture of the tall Buddha at the Bongeunsa Temple (봉은사) in Seoul.
Buddha's Birthday celebrates the birth of the enlightened being, itself, sometimetime between April and May.

Come springtime, Korea celebrates the birth of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who later gained fame and earned the stage name Buddha

Like Seollal and Chuseok, the date of Buddha’s Birthday (부처님오신날) follows Korea’s lunisolar calendar, not the international Gregorian calendar.

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.

Children's Day

(어린이날)
May 5th

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.

Memorial Day

(현충일)
June 6th
Statues of Korean War soldiers at the War Memorial of Korea.
The War Memorial of Korea commemorates the soldiers who fought during the Korean War.

Korea established Memorial Day (현충일) to remember those who lost lives during the Korean War, similar to the UK’s Remembrance Day or America’s own Memorial 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.

Constitution Day

July 17th
(제헌절)

Constitution Day (제헌절) memorializes the date that Korea adopted their current constitution after the Japanese occupation (1910~1945).

Though the nation ratified the constitution on July 12th, 1948, someone had the clever idea to hold back its official adoption for five days.

Why? King Taejo (조선태조) founded the Joseon Dynasty (대조선국; 1392 ACE ~ 1897 ACE), one of Korea’s defining kingdoms that birthed hangul and turtle ships, on July 17th.

National Liberation Day

August 15th
(광복절)

In terms of spirit and patriotism, National Liberation Day (광복절) compares with the US’s July 4th, minus the fireworks and hotdogs.

The holiday celebrates Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II (a.k.a. V-J Day), and Korea’s subsequent liberation from their oppressive rule.

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.

National Liberation Day is the only public holiday that both North and South Korea share.

Chuseok

(추석)
3 days; Sep 8 ~ Oct 8
A picture of a Charye (차례) offering table, displaying fruit, meat, and other offerings for departed loved ones.
Families prepare Charye (차례) offering tables full of expensive foods for deceased relatives during Seollal and Chuseok.

Chuseok (추석) is a fall harvest festival celebrated with family get-togethers and remembrances of lost loved ones. Americans and Canadians often call it Korea’s Thanksgiving.

Chuseok shares many similarities with Seollal.

  1. Chuseok is one of Korea’s most important holidays.
  2. Many other Asian nations commemorate the same lunar date. China calls theirs the Mid-Autumn Festival. In Vietnam, it’s named Tết Trung Thu.
  3. Families visit the sleep over at the eldest male’s place, before rising early, wearing hanboks, performing ceremonies on Chuseok day, including:
    1. Charye (차례) — Families set an offering table around pictures of deceased loved ones containing traditional foods like songpyeon (송편; sweet rice cakes), jeon (; savory pancakes), and japchae (잡채; glass noodles).
    2. 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

October 3rd
(개천절)

Holidays like Independence Memorial Day, Constitution Day, and National Liberation Day celebrate South Korea’s establishment in 1948.

National Foundation Day (개천절), however, celebrates a far deeper history: the Gojoseon Dynasty’s (고조선; 2333 BCE ~ 108 BCE) founding.

According to legend, third day of the 10th lunar month in 2333 BCE, the divine Hwanung (환웅) descended from the heavens and made a sandalwood tree his home.

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.

Only the bear succeeded and Hwanung transformed it into a woman. Soon, she grew lonely. Hwanung married her and they gave birth to Dangun (단군), founder of the Gojoseon Dynasty.

While an ancient story, National Foundation Day ties itself to the international calendar and occurs every October 3rd.

No people equals no shops.

Hangul Day

(한글날)
October 9
A picture of a Korean language book on a bookshelf.
In 1446, King Sejong invented Hangul, Korea's to written language, to spread literacy to the masses.

Almost all human languages developed through time, conquests, and compromise. Korea, however, invented their own written system: hangul (한글).

In 14th century Korea, King Sejong got fed up with their borrowed Chinese character system, Hanja. Only the rich could afford the schooling necessary to learn the complex system.

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.)

Every October 9th, the nation celebrates Hangul Day (한글날) to commemorate the writing system’s birth in 1446.

Christmas

December 25th
(기독탄신일)
Myeongdong Cathedral interior looking towards the alter.
The interior of Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul arches high over its worshippers.

Christmas (기독탄신일) barely registers in other Asian countries like Japan, China, and Vietnam. In Korea, however, the public holiday glows bright.

Why? Two reasons.

First, Christianity. Catholics came to Korea around 150 years ago. Though many suffered martyrdom, the religion caught on.

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.

Holiday Calendar

Find a monthly calendar listing South Korea’s public holidays below.