South Korea is a country rich in vibrant culture, something reflected in the large number of traditional holidays celebrated in the country. Most of these national holidays are a time for Koreans to take time off from their busy schedules and journey to their hometowns to reconnect with family but are also marked by some spectacular festivities. Some of the biggest celebrations in South Korea that foreign visitors to the country won’t want to miss out on include Seollal, or Lunar New Year’s Day, and Chuseok, often referred to as Norean Thanksgiving Day.
Foreign travelers to South Korea may first be required to obtain a visa in order to visit the country and enjoy its numerous national holidays. A number of foreign citizens are able to visit South Korea visa-free for short stays, with the duration of the allowed stay depending on the nationality of the traveler. Most other foreign nationalities are required to obtain a visa to visit the country, and this is due to become much easier once the South Korea online visa is introduced in the coming months.
Eligible citizens will soon be able to complete a South Korea online visa application form and receive travel authorization exclusively online, eliminating the need to apply from an embassy or consulate. This expedited application procedure will allow travelers to quickly obtain a visa and allow them more time to plan their itinerary and decide which national holidays in South Korea they would most like to experience. Read on for a complete guide to the biggest traditional holidays in South Korea.
National Holidays in South Korea
Some of the Korean national holidays are also commonly celebrated around the world, such as New Year’s Day, Christmas, and Buddha’s birthday. However, the large majority are completely unique to the country and deeply intertwined with traditional Korean culture, such as Korean Memorial Day in July and Hangeul Day in October.
On public holidays most workers have the day off and many South Koreans in the cities choose to travel to their ancestral hometowns to celebrate with family. However, the majority of tourist attractions, museums, department stores, and restaurants will be open, although offices and banks will be closed.
Although South Korea follows the Gregorian calendar, some of their national holidays are still based around the lunar calendar. See below for a complete calendar of national holidays in South Korea for 2019.
January 1st – New Year’s Day
- Many Koreas watch the first sunrise of the year from the mountains or coastline.
February 4th-6th – Lunar New Year’s Day (Seollal)
- Families come together to eat specially prepared food and play traditional games.
March 1st – Independence Movement Day
- A public holiday to commemorate the Declaration of Independence made on March 1st, 1909
May 5th-6th – Children’s Day
- Korean parents celebrate their children by taking them on a fun day out.
May 12th – Buddha’s Birthday
- Special rituals are held at Buddhist temples across the country.
June 6th – Memorial Day
- Memorial services are held across South Korea to commemorate the soldiers and civilians who died in service of their country.
August 15th – Liberation Day
- A public holiday which commemorates the liberation of Korea in 1945.
September 12th-14th – Chuseok
- South Koreans hold memorial rituals called charye at the graves of their ancestors.
October 3rd – National Foundation Day
- Ceremonies are held at sacred sites across the country to commemorate the founder of Korea, the god-king Dangun.
October 9th – Hangeul Day
- A national holiday celebrating the creation of the Korean alphabet (Hangeul) on this day in 1446.
December 25th – Christmas
- Celebrated with Christmas trees and light displays as in much of the world.
The Most important Korean National Holidays
The two biggest national holidays in South Korea are unquestionably Lunar New Year (Seollal), in February, and Chuseok in September. Those who choose to travel to Seoul during Seollal may be surprised to find the normally bustling capital city of South Korea relatively quiet. This is because the majority of Koreans leave the larger metropolitan centres for a few days to travel to their ancestral towns and villages, as the holiday is traditionally seen as an opportunity to reaffirm family ties.
On the morning of Seollal, families put on their best clothes and pay their respects to their elders, before enjoying a customary bowl of tteokguk (rice cake soup) and mandu guk (dumpling soup). The rest of the day is spent on fun activities such as kite flying and playing yutnori, traditional Korean board games. Those who visit South Korea during Seollal should be aware that it may be difficult to visit some regions of the country outside of the main cities, as buses and trains are usually full to capacity and roads become heavily congested.
Chuseok is another public holiday in South Korea where the majority of the population seek to visit their ancestral hometowns and pay respects to family. As with many traditional harvest festivals around the world, Chuseok is held around the autumn equinox and commemorated with a large feast which includes Korean delicacies such as Songpyeon, a traditional rice cake, Hangwa, a sweet treat made with honey and fruit, and Baekseju, a type of Korean rice wine.
During Chuseok, South Koreans customarily visit the graves of their ancestors in order to tidy the plots and perform symbolic offerings of food and drink. However, the holiday is also a time of lively celebrations, including competitive wrestling matches, martial arts displays, and games including massive tugs-of-war and archery contests. It is also a great time for visitors to the country to experience traditional Korean dancing or Ganggangsullae, performed by women and children dressed in Hanbok, brightly-colored traditional silk clothing.