Holiday is called Gonghyuil 공휴일 in Korean, but in Chinese script Hanja 한자 it is 公休日. The meaning of the Chinese character is official day of rest, so Sunday is actually also a Gonghyuil 공휴일.
Everyone expects holidays not only in Korea but everywhere, but Koreans are more excited about the days off than celebrating the days, as the word gonghyuil 공휴일 suggests. You know, Koreans work a lot.
In Austria most holidays are religious days, but in Korea this is very different and Korean holidays have been changed a few times. In this article you will learn everything about the current holidays in South Korea.
The most important Korean holidays
Two of the most important holidays are Seollal 설날 (Korean New Year) and Chuseok 추석 (Harvest Festival). The two days are the most traditional Korean holidays. These were set according to the Chinese lunar calendar. One day before and after Seollal and Chuseok is also a public holiday, so we don’t have to work for three days in a row.
Overview of the Korean holidays
In this table you can see all Korean holidays, Gonghyuil 공휴일 and also no Gonghyuil that we don’t have off. I will explain later what which Korean holiday is about, the difference between public holidays and national holidays, and which holidays have been changed.
|01 Jan||New Year’s Day||새해||Public holiday|
|01 Jan (Lunar calendar, 3 days)||Seollal (Korean New Year)||설날||Public holiday|
|01.Mar||Independence Day||3.1절 (삼일절)||National Holiday (국경일)|
|08 April (lunar calendar)||Buddha’s birthday||부처님 오신 날||Public holiday|
|05.May||Children’s Day||어린이날||Public holiday|
|06.Jun||Remembrance Day||현충일||Public holiday|
|15.Aug||Independence Day||광복절||National Holiday (국경일)|
(Lunar calendar, 3 days)
|Chuseok (Harvest Festival)||추석||Public holiday|
|03.Oct||Foundation Day of the Nation||개천절||National Holiday (국경일)|
|09.Oct||Hangeul Day (Korean Alphabet Day)||한글날||National Holiday (국경일)|
|Dec 25||Christmas Day||크리스마스||Public holiday|
|no gonghyuil||May 01||Labour Day||근로자의 날||Memorial Day|
|no gonghyuil||05.Apr||Arbor Day||식목일||Memorial Day|
|no gonghyuil||08.May||Parents day||어버이날||Memorial Day|
|no gonghyuil||May 15||Teachers’ Day||스승의 날||Memorial Day|
|no gonghyuil||17.Jul||constitution day||제헌절||National Holiday (국경일)|
|no gonghyuil||01.Oct||Armed Forces Day||국군의 날||Memorial Day|
The official holidays Gonghyuil, when you do not have to work, are 15 days a year. Four of them are national holidays Gukkyeongil 국경일 and have to do with the founding, independence and the Korean language. Another Korean national holiday is Constitution Day, but we don’t have the day off on Constitution Day.
The Korean holidays in the cycle of the year
In the following I will explain each Korean holiday to you in the order in which they occur in the yearly cycle.
New Year’s Day 새해첫날 (1.Januer)
We also celebrate on the first of Januer (새해첫날), like you, but even more important than New Year in the Gregorian calendar, in our country is the Korean New Year Seollal 설날 in the lunar calendar. On the first of Januer, the first day of the New Year (새해 첫날), Koreans usually eat rice cake soup Tteokguk 떡국, although relatives do not gather like on Seollal 설날.
Seollal, the Korean New Year has a greater tradition and more rituals are performed. However, on the first day of the new year, when the old year is concluded and the new year is celebrated, the ringing of bells(제야의 종) of Boshingak 보신각 and sunrise events take place throughout the country.
Many Koreans go to the beach in the east to see the sunrise.
In 2020, everything was different because of Corona. Bell ringing(제야의 종) is out in 2021. It’s the first time it’s been cancelled since the bells were first rung in 1953.
Seollal 설날, Korean New Year (Jan. 1 in the lunar calendar)
Since Seollal 설날 follows the lunar calendar, the date changes every year. It always takes place in January or February.
On Seollal all Koreans go home to commemorate their ancestors together with their families. Trains and buses are always fully booked and there are traffic jams everywhere. That is why Seollal is also called the Korean migration.
The ancestor ceremony is an elaborate ritual. At Seollal we do Sebae 세배 after the ceremony and before breakfast. Sebae 세배 is a Korean New Year greeting. We bow to our parents and grandparents and welcome the new year. ,,Saehae Bok Mani Badseyo 새해 복 많이 받으세요. (Get good luck in the new year.)” Then we get the New Year’s money Sebaetdon 세뱃돈 like Christmas bonus. After that, we eat rice cake soup Tteokguk 떡국 for breakfast, so we say that if we eat Tteokguk 떡국, we will be one year older.
Independence Day 삼일절 (March 1)
Japan forced the Joseon Dynasty from to annexation in 1910.
On March 1, 1919, the Samiljeol 삼일절 (literally First March) or Manse Undong 만세운동 independence movement took place against Japan. At that time, Koreans proclaimed independence by shouting “Daehan Dongnip Manse 대한 독립 만세 (Korea’s Independence Manse)” and raising the flag of Korea, Taegeukgi 태극기. Manse means to raise your arms and cheer. It was a non-violent independence movement throughout the country, but afterwards many Koreans were put in prison and died.
On March 1, 2019, the event was held at various locations across the country to commemorate the 100th anniversary. Anniversary of Samiljeol. The Manse March took place as it did 100 years ago and even the President joined in.
March 1, Independence Day, is a national holiday and also Gonghyuil, so we have the day off.
Arbor Day 식목일 (April 05)
Korea consists of 70% mountains. After the Korean War in the early 1950s, Koreans cut down all the trees on the mountains to use as firewood. So there were no trees in the mountains and so a tree day was set. Trees were and still are planted every year on Arbor Day. Arbor Day is not a day off at the moment, but it is one of the holidays that have been changed often.
Buddha’s birthday 부처님 오신 날 (08 April in the lunar calendar)
Buddha’s birthday is a Buddhist festival and holiday celebrated in most East Asian countries.
This day is called Bucheonim Osin Nal 부처님 오신 날 meaning “the day the Buddha came”.
In South Korea, Buddha’s birthday is celebrated according to the Korean lunar calendar. It is usually in April or May and is a gonghyuil, a day off. Throughout the month, lotus lanterns hang in temples and lanterns in houses and on the street. On the day of Buddha’s birth, many temples offer free meals and tea to all visitors. Breakfast and lunch are often Sanchae Bibimbap 산채 비빔밥. Buddha’s birthday is often celebrated by people of all religious faiths. Some Catholic churches or progressive Protestant churches have their own banners to celebrate Buddha’s coming.
Labour Day 근로자의 날 (May 01)
Labor Day is also a holiday in Korea, but not a gonghyuil.
Most workers, e.g. those employed by larger companies, do not have to work, but professors and teachers have to work, so children and pupils have to go to school and students to university.
In the past, civil servants also had to work on this day, but recently, civil servants have also been given the day off.
Children’s Day 어린이날 (May 05)
South Korean Children’s Day (어린이 날 Eorininal) was created by Bangjeongwhan 방정환, an independent activist. We have been celebrating Children’s Day since 1922, but it wasn’t until 1975 that it became an official holiday. Children’s Day is on May 5. Families usually visit zoos or amusement parks on this day. Children also receive gifts from their parents and relatives.
Parents’ Day 어버이날 (08 May)
In Korea, there is no Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, but there is a Parents’ Day. Parents’ Day is also a public holiday but not a day off Gonghyil, so Koreans visit their parents on the weekend. They eat together and children give gifts to their parents. Parents are happy when they receive money as a gift.
Day of the teachers 스승의 날 (May 15)
Teachers’ Day, on May 15, is a public holiday in Korea, but not a gonghyuil. In the past, Koreans have always given a gift to their teachers and professors on this day, but since Kim Younglan’s law (the Anti-Corruption and Bribery Law) in 2016, it can be corruption and bribery, so most schools rest on this day.
Remembrance Day 현충일 (June 06).
On this day, we remember those who died during military service, during the Korean War, and during other significant wars or battles.
A memorial service will be held at Seoul National Cemetery on this day. The President and the people visit the National Cemetery. On Memorial Day at 10 a.m., a siren sounds across the country and people are silent and praying for a minute. The South Korean flag is flown at half-mast.
Constitution Day 제헌절 (July 17)
Constitution Day is the Republic of Korea’s national holiday on July 17 and commemorates the enactment of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea on July 17, 1948. It was originally a public holiday, but has been excluded by Gonghyuil since 2008 and is the only national holiday that is not a day off. Usually Koreans don’t really think about this day. Especially since it’s no longer a day off.
Independence Day 광복절 (August 15).
Korea became independent from Japanese imperialism on August 15, 1945. So August 15 is a national holiday and national festivals are celebrated on this day. By the end of World War II, in 1945, the United States had dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. One atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6 and the other atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9. Six days after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan unconditionally declared surrender to the Allies on August 15. As a result, Korea gained independence.
Chuseok 추석, Harvest Festival (August 15 in the lunar calendar).
Chuseok 추석 or Hangawi 한가위 is the Korean harvest festival, a holiday on August 15 of the lunar calendar. Since Korea has long been an agricultural society, the Harvest Festival is the most important holiday in Korea along with Seollal. We also have one day off before and after Chuseok, so 3 days off in a row.
On Chuseok, Koreans also go home to visit their parents. As with Seollal, traffic is jammed all over the country for Chuseok and tickets for public transport are booked up well in advance.
On Chuseok in the morning we have an ancestor ceremony like on New Year’s Day. Afterwards, Koreans go to the ancestral tombs to pray. During the day we make stuffed rice cakes Songpyeon 송편 and eat. These rice cakes can be eaten all day at Thanksgiving.
Armed Forces Day 국군의 날 (October 01).
Armed Forces Day in South Korea is an annual event usually celebrated on October 1 to commemorate the service of men and women in the armed forces of the Republic of Korea. Because of the economy, it is no longer a national holiday or official day of rest.
Foundation Day of the Nation 개천절 (October 03).
Gaecheonjeol 개천절 is a national holiday in South Korea on which we have the day off. According to legend, this holiday commemorates the date of the founding of the first Korean state of Gojoseon 고조선 by King Dangun 단군 on October 3 in 2333 BC. The name Gaecheonjeol 개천절 (開天節) means “the day the heavens opened”.
Gaecheonjeol is also recognized in North Korea. In North Korea, the founding of Korea is commemorated with an annual ceremony at the mausoleum of Dangun, the founder of Gojoseon.
Hangeullal, Korean alphabet day 한글날 (October 09).
Hangeullal 한글날 is a national holiday commemorating the invention and promulgation of the Korean alphabet Hangeul 한글.
Hangeul 한글 was invented by King Sejong 세종대왕 and his officials in 1443 and published on October 9, 1446. Hangeul 한글 is the only script we know who invented it.
Christmas Day 크리스마스 (December 25)
In Korea, the December 25 is a holiday, but on December 24 you have to work normally. From the beginning of December there are Christmas decorations in shops, restaurants and on streets, although the religious aspect of Christmas is not really important to non-Christians.
Young people are very sad when they spend Christmas alone, without a boyfriend or girlfriend at home. This is because they usually have Christmas dinner with their lovers in a luxurious restaurant and expect gifts. At Christmas, restaurants and bars are open late and the price is doubled and it can be described as very commercial. This is in contrast to Europe, where Christmas is spent with family.
New Year’s Eve 올해 마지막 날 (December 31).
In fact, there is no word for New Year’s Eve in Korean. The exact name in Korean is 올해 마지막 날 which translates to “the last day of this year”. December 31 is not a public holiday in Korea, so you have to work as normal. Restaurants and bars are open late, and the price is doubled, just like at Christmas.
Interestingly, on the evening or night of December 29-31, which is also the night of December 31, celebrity awards are broadcast on various television channels. Many people watch TV to find out which actors and singers have won awards.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the bells strike at midnight to ring in the new year. We call this tradition Jeyae Jong 제야의 종.
Which Korean holidays have been changed and why?
Most national holidays are Gonghyuil 공휴일 (see table at the beginning of this article), however there is one national day, Constitution Day, that is not a Gonghyuil. Why?
When I went to school in Korea, Constitution Day was still a day off. Also, Arbor Day and Armed Forces Day were free days, but not anymore. Back then I also had to go to school on Saturday and you had to work until noon on Saturday. Since 2004, Koreans have only been working 5 days a week instead of 6.
Therefore, large corporations, Jaebeol 재벌, such as Samsung, Hyundai, SK, LG, etc., feared that due to the reduced working days, productivity will fall. For this reason, these days (Constitution Day, Arbor Day, Constitution Day and Armed Forces Day) have been abolished as Gonghyuil.
Korea’s four largest Jaebeol account for 67% of Korea’s total profit. (2018 OECD Economic Survey). If these few big Jaebeol collapse, the Korean economy will also collapse. So the politicians have no choice but to accept the demands of these big Jaebeols.
As you can see, Korean holidays are more about taking a day off than celebrating the day. How do you celebrate your holidays? Are holidays important to you because of tradition or is it also more important to you to have a day off?