Turning A Year Older in Korea

Today is Seollal, the Korean New Year. The Korean New Year usually coincides with the Chinese New Year (which is also known as the Lunar New Year). Here in Korea, the Korean holiday celebrates the beginning of a new year, as well as celebrating another year of life, making it the most important holiday of the year.

I've been told for the past six months that my Korean age is either one or two years older than my Western age, but no one could tell me how to calculate my exact Korean age. The age system seemed to be so confusing, it's taken me six months to understand it. And after all that time, I now realize it's not too badeven for those of us who aren't so great at math.

So here goes.

First of all, when a Korean is born, he or she is already one year old. Then on his or her first Seollal, the little baby turns two. It doesn't matter when his or her actual birthdate is; everyone turns a year older on this day.

So let's pretend a little baby was born here in Korea on 1 December 2007. We'll call it KB, Korean Baby. KB, on 1 December 2007, is one year old. Today, KB turns two years old.

Let's pretend another little baby was born in England on the same day, 1 December 2007. This little one is named EB, English Baby. EB doesn't even turn one until 1 December 2008.

So, the little KB is always older than EB by one or two years. Before Seollal, any date between 1 December 2007 and 7 February 2008, KB is one year older than EB. But from Seollal until 30 November 2008, KB is actually two years older than EB.

In fact, I've also been told that the common Korean "birthday" is the Gregorian new year, 1 January. Koreans tell me, "Everyone turns a year older on the same day, on New Years Day." And I ask, "What new year? Lunar? Or January first?" Then they get all flustered and unsure, and I get different responses from different peopleor even different responses from the same person. But my Korean go-to girl, the all-knowing Ms Heo, was very sure when she was telling me about this interesting holiday, so I'm going to go with her answer.

Because Koreans find it complicated and difficult to explain, many people have turned to asking, "What year were you born?" instead of "What is your age?"

And with a new age comes a fresh start with a new year. This three-day holiday a family affair, very similar to Chuseok, where most people go home to visit with their relatives. At home, families eat tteokguk (rice-cake soup) and ring in the official new year wearing traditional hanbok. As well, families hold ancestral memorials, just as they do on Chuseok.

Unique to this holiday, children receive gifts on Seollal from their elders. And not just any gift, but envelopes of money. Elder relatives give envelopes with money to their children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. The amount usually coincides with the children's ages; the older you are, the more you get. It's such an important aspect of this holiday that new banknotes to banks so that people can give crisp new bills. In order to receive the envelope (called sebaetdon), the child must bow to their elders (called sebae) and wish their elders luck in the new year by saying, "Saehae bok manhi badeseyo."

So, all over Korea, happy birthday and happy new year! Welcome to the year of the rat. May you receive a lot of luck in this new year.

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