The Korean Celebration Experience: What to Know Before Attending

By Abby Kotar

Countries all over the world celebrate milestones in different ways, and Korea has its own unique way of enjoying traditions year-round. Whether it’s just one year after your birth, your first confession on Valentine’s Day, or your wedding day, Korea has you covered for an endless supply of activities, foods, and gatherings to keep you busy on some important holidays. Want to know what to wear to your friend’s wedding? Need to buy a gift for someone on Christmas? Have no fear! We’ve compiled a quick rundown of some major Korean celebrations and how to do them right. 

  • Wedding

Weddings in Korea have changed over time, but they still hold on to some of their traditional aspects. For example, The bride and groom will often get married wearing hanbok (한복: traditional Korean dress), and the women on the bride’s side will often attend the ceremony wearing hanbok as well. The bride and groom will both have their hair and makeup done if it is desired. They will greet their wedding guests before the ceremony, which usually only lasts 20-30 minutes. Wedding guests will bring a white envelope with money inside, the amount dependent on the relationship they have with the bride or groom. Registries and gifts are not usually present at Korean wedding ceremonies. 

A few days following the wedding reception, the bride and groom will greet their families together in one setting. This is called pyebaek (펴백) and begins with the newlywed couple performing a traditional deep bow towards the older couples. This is followed by traditional games, such as throwing chestnuts at the bride, who will attempt to catch them in the skirt of her hanbok. The number of chestnuts caught corresponds to the number of children her and her husband will have during their marriage. Sometimes, the groom will carry the bride and her family members on his back to signify how well he can provide support. The family plays a big role in Korean weddings; traditionally, the groom’s family will purchase a house for the couple while the bride’s family will supply the furniture. This is less common with modern marriages but still occurs from time to time. 

  • First Birthday 

Birthdays in Korea are traditionally celebrated with a bowl of miyeokguk (미역국: seaweed soup). It is said that this soup provides enormous health benefits to support you through another year of life, but be careful! It should not be eaten on days of importance such as exam days, as the slippery seaweed could cause you to lose control and miss the mark on your test. Koreans whose birthdays fall on exam days are often hesitant to risk messing up on an exam and will wait until the next morning to have their birthday dish. 

Although yearly birthday celebrations are fun to participate in and can be the source of many good memories, the main event is definitely the first birthday celebration. In Korean, this is called doljanchi (돌잔치) and is a large event for family and friends to attend. The main attraction is the doljabi (돌잡이), or fortune-telling activity. The baby, dressed in hanbok, is placed in front of an assortment of items. They are encouraged to pick one or two items from the group, which correspond to a future job or gift. For example, a spool of thread indicates a long and healthy life, a pencil indicates good studies, and a gavel predicts the child will be a judge or prosecutor. Families will often throw in a few fun objects as well, such as a soccer ball or microphone, in hopes that their child is destined to be a pro athlete or singer. In addition to the doljabi, families will play games such as trivia about the baby for prizes, or betting on the outcome of the doljabi.

  • Christmas

Holidays in Korea often fall into one of two categories: fun with family or fun with a significant other. These holidays may be quite different from the ones celebrated in your country, even if they share some basic characteristics. Christmas, for example, is a holiday celebrated globally. Although it has religious origins, Christmas in Korea has become more centered around enjoying time with a significant other by exchanging gifts or going out on a date. Some popular activities enjoyed on Christmas are ice skating, sledding, or attending events at the famous Lotte World Amusement Park. You may be disappointed to hear that decorating your house in tinsel and tiny elves is not customary in Korea, but have no fear! Public places such as department stores and parks are usually decked out in everything merry and jolly. Gift-giving is typically reserved for couples instead of family members, so some families will attend church on Christmas to celebrate the more religious aspect of the holiday with their loved ones. 

  • Chuseok

Many countries have their own holiday meant for giving thanks and being with family, and Korea is no exception! Chuseok (추석) is celebrated in September, and is known as the “holiday of bountiful harvest.” Families get together during this time to give thanks to their ancestors, enjoy delicious food, and share stories. Some foods commonly enjoyed during Chuseok include songpyeon (송편: rice cake filled with sesame seeds, black beans, honey cinnamon, chestnut, etc) and modeumjeon (모듬전: fried pancake with zucchini, shrimp, and fish). Families will also pay a visit to the graves of their ancestors to pay respects, in addition to holding memorial services. This holiday is filled with lots of love and joy for family, and is definitely one to try participating in if you find yourself in Korea in September. 

  • Valentine's Day

Ah, Valentine’s day... a day singles all over the world dread every February. In Korea, Valentine’s day actually lasts three months (twelve months if you count all of the lesser celebrated “couples’ days”), and consists of Valentine’s day on February 14, White Day on March 14, and Black Day one month later.

The official day of Valentine’s Day is reserved for girls to give chocolates, often homemade, to express their affections. While this holiday can also be celebrated among friends around the world, in Korea it is strictly a couples holiday. White Day, one month later, is a day of response for the boys who received chocolates the month before. They will gift girls with flowers, chocolate, or clothing. And finally, Black Day. In March, the single people of Korea get together for one day and enjoy jjajangmyeon (자장면: black bean noodles) to celebrate, or wallow in, their singleness.

So, if the thought of not having a Valentine this year makes you want to curl up in bed and binge Netflix for all of February, you can relax and look forward to the delicious noodle meal waiting for you just around the corner. 

We hope this guide to Korean celebrations has helped you feel more confident in attending your next event! Did any aspect of traditional Korean culture shock you? If not, which celebration are you most excited to add to your calendar? Let us know in the comments below!

Cover Image: MAMAMOO's Solar (RBW Entertainment) and Eric Nam (Stone Music Entertainment) in We Got Married (MBC)
Written by Abby Kotar

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