Sunday, January 22, 2012

KOREAN CULTURE: New Year's Day (3)

Seol () and Seollal (설날)

Yunnori by Kim Hongdo (1745~?)
Yunnori is a traditional Korean board game people play
all night on New Year's Eve into New Year's Day.

Seollal is a compound noun in which two words seol and nal are put together to mean “New Year’s Day.”  Nal() in isolation translates to “day” and the “n” sound is assimilated to the preceding sound “l” of seol thus pronounced “lal”() in seollal.  Don’t get it wrong though.  In Korean, it’s only the pronunciation, not the spelling, that changes:  설날 () – 설랄 (X).  By the way, I try to Romanize Korean words according to their actual pronunciation on this blog:

My Dear Korea
na-ui → naui
na-e → nae

Then what does “seol” mean in Seollal?  There have been several hypotheses proposed on the origin of the word, seol:  The etymology of the word is derived (1) from the old native Korean sal (, a nominal form of the verb sarida (사리다), meaning “restrain oneself”),1 or (2) from the native Korean seorbda (섧다, “feel sorrow”),2 or (3) from the native Korean seolda (설다, “unfamiliar, new”),3 or (4) from the native Korean seoda (서다, “stand”),4 or from the old native Korean seol (, “age, year”).5

          1. Ancient books on seasonal Korean customs such as Seasonal Customs of the 
              Eastern Kingdom (1849) (Dongguk Sesigi ) described Seollal as sinil (신일
              愼日), a day people restrained themselves and were discreet in words and 
              deeds so that their New Year would turn out peaceful and well.  In a word 
              sinil, “sin” means “restrain oneself” and “il” means “day.”

          2. It’s because we all hate growing older, and as I mentioned in 
              “Korean Culture: New Year’s Day (1),” all Koreans turn one year older on 
              New Year’s Day, not on their birthdays. 

          3. It’s because sending off the old year and bringing in the new year is both 
              physically and mentally an unfamiliar thing and also the New Year is literally 
              new and yet to be lived, hence imperfect.

          4. It literally means setting up a new year. 

          5. In the 17th century Korea, the word seol meant “age” and “year”
              so Seollal was used to show that the first day of New Year is a day people
              turn one year older.  Then, seol had evolved into sal over the centuries,
              and eventually in the 19th century, sal took over the reins of the meaning
              “age”: Myeot salimnigga? (몇살입니까? “How old are you?”) ()
              - Myeot seolimnigga? (X)

The Korean folklore historian, Jung Junghun (2004) points out the most significant thing about Seollal is “purification,” and given that almost all of Seollal customs are closely related to observing the taboos, or superstitions, the first hypothesis adequately explains all.   As I mentioned in “Korean Culture: New Year’s Eve,” Korean New Year’s taboos have their roots in Taoism (도교, Dogyo) which I think is so deeply ingrained in Korean culture and the Chinese zodiac signs.  

While Seollal refers to the first day of New Year, Seol continues through the 15th, i.e. until Jeongwol Daeboreum (the first full moon of the lunar year).  For 14 days, starting from New Year’s Day, ancient Koreans pondered the meaning of each day in their heart.

Even though no one knows when the first Seollal was celebrated in Korea, Suseo (수서, 隨書), the Book of Sui (the official history of the Chinese Sui Dynasty), recorded that on each New Year’s Morning, the people of Silla (57 BC~935 AD) congratulated one another, and kings threw a celebration party and ritual worship to Ilweolseongsin (일월성신, which literally translates to “sun-moon-star god” and means “god of day and god of night”).

Samguk Sagi (삼국사기, 三國史記), Historical Record of the Three Kingdoms (of Korea) (1145) indicated that Goiwang(고이왕, “King Goi”) of Baekje had a ritual worship to Cheonjisinmyeong (천지신명, “gods of heaven and earth”) on New Year’s Day of the year 238 AD; Chaeggyewang (책계왕, “King Chaeggye”) of Goguryeo held a memorial service for the founder of the nation, Dongmyeongseongwang (“King Dongmyeongseong”) on New Year’s Day of the year 287 AD; and kings of Silla held big ritual worships six times a year, one of which was held during Seol (on the 2nd and 5th day of the lunar year).  Seollal was one of the nine biggest national holidays during the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392) and one of the four biggest during the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1897).

All these rituals are an ancient form of today’s charye, a traditional Korean memorial service for dead ancestors held on Seollal (and Chuseok) and show Seollal is almost two millennia old.

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