The two largest events in Seoul take place in the autumn and winter, respectively. During these two major holidays, the city literally shuts down. You cannot find a taxi, you cannot eat in restaurants and you will find it difficult to shop or be active in any way. These two holidays are known as Chuseok (which takes place in autumn according to the lunar calendar) and Seollal (which takes place in winter according to lunar calendar).
Chuseok can be compared to Thanksgiving in North America. It is a time to celebrate the harvest season with friends, family and food. Families gather, usually in the house of an elder (such as a grandmother or eldest sibling) and the women prepare a great feast, which includes autumn favourites like squash and corn. A special, sweet rice cake called songpyeon is eaten, as well. The rice cake is usually filled with nuts, honey or sweet bean paste and is then steamed over a bed of pine needles. It is an acquired taste for the average expat!
During Chuseok, families bring offerings of food to the graves of their ancestors (typically, each family has a special burial mound which is covered in grass). They bring gifts of soju, fruits and vegetables, and of course songpyeon. They bow to their ancestor’s graves and clean the surrounding area.
There are several games that are enjoyed during Chuseok. One, known as U-no-ri, involves throwing small sticks into the air to determine how many spaces the player can move on the game board. Other games have a strong resemblance to “horseshoes” in North America as well as “hackey sack”.
In comparason, Seollal celebrates the beginning of the Korean lunar year. During Seollal, a delicious soup known as ddokguk is eaten as everyone turns a year older (indeed, after Seollal celebrations, every Korean uses their new age – they do not wait for their actual birthday). Ddokguk is similar to a stew, with chunks of meat, vegetables and chewy pieces of ddok, or rice cake. This is not the only food consumed at Seollal, of course, and just like Christmas in the West, families gorge themselves on feasts throughout the holiday.
During Seollal, one is expected to honour the elders in their lives. Children will bow to their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles out of respect and will wish them health and prosperity. The elders, in turn, will bestow advice upon their children and grandchildren. In the past, this was done solely out of respect for their elders, but today children mainly bow because they know their grandparents and parents will give them money when the bowing is finished.
Just like Chuseok, people travel throughout the country to spend time with their families during Seollal. They play traditional games and relax with family and friends. For both holidays, it is common to see children wearing traditional hanbok: colourful silk clothes with wide skirts for the girls and tapered pants for the boys. Unmarried girls, traditionally, wear very colourful hanbok, while pink or purple is a common colour for boys to wear.
If you plan to travel within the country during either of these holidays, beware: you will experience bumper-to-bumper traffic from one end of the country to the other as Seoul, the most densely populated area in the country, empties of people on their way to their hometowns in other areas. This means any train, bus or plane tickets have to be made months in advance and you will have to add several hours of extra travel time if you are travelling by bus or car.
Other yearly events in Korea worth mentioning include:
Gwangju Kimchi Festival
Every October, Koreans and expats alike crowd the Southwest city of Gwangju to experience Kimchi in its many forms and flavours! This national festival has been a yearly crowd pleaser for 16 years. Make kimchi, taste the different kinds of kimchi, and learn about the historic and cultural relevance of Korea’s most famous contribution to the world of food.
Seoul Fringe Festival
You can get your freak on (seriously, it’s encouraged) at the annual Seoul Fringe Festival. Like its sister festivals found throughout the year, you’ll find all kinds of weird stuff on the streets of Hongdae (as if they weren’t weird enough already) during the month of August. Performance art in all of its many forms are celebrated and onlookers are encouraged to participate. It’s a great, unforgettable time!
MODAFE: International Modern Dance Festival
This 28 year old dance festival showcases the local talent of Korean modern dancers and welcomes dancers from all over the world to participate in their many programs and performances. Held in May, this annual festival showcases modern dance through various media forms and invites all to watch performances.
EXiS (Experimental Film and Video Festival Seoul)
Held annually every September, this festival showcases international, independent filmmakers who do not otherwise get much attention. The schedule showcases nearly 250 films at the Seoul Art Cinema (Jongno-gu), IndieSpace (Jungang-gu) and Samillo Channgo Theatre. These films represent up to 45 different nations.
Seoul Festival of Lights
This festival takes places from the end of December through to the beginning of January. Starting with a parade in Jongno-gu, downtown Seoul glitters for 38 days, adorned in all kinds of dramatic and artistic lights displays. A wonderful place to spend New Years Eve and a great place to spend your weekends during the festival, Gwanghwamun Square in Jongno-gu is flooded to create an ice skating rink for one to enjoy the lights of the city. The festival celebrates Korea’s cultural adherence to light displays.
Seoul Lotus Lantern Festival
In May (from the 16th to the 24th), to celebrate the birth of the Buddha, Seoul has a wonderful parade that takes place in Insadong, Jongno-gu. During the day, locals and visitors make paper lotus lanterns which symbolize peace and harmony, and adorn all Korean Buddhist temples during the month of May. As the sun goes down, the lanterns are lit and are parade throughout Seoul’s downtown and around two of Seoul’s Buddhist temples in Jongno-gu. A wonderful place to take your kids, or simply enjoy with friends.
For the most up to date info on all festivals in Seoul throughout the year visit this website:
While The Pusan Film Festival is not located in Seoul it is still worth considering as it is the most important (and largest) film festival in Asia. Visit Pusan International Film Festival at http://www.biff.kr/intro/default.asp for more information.