By Jenny Lee WIRED Korea
Starting this Friday, Koreans will take a break from the hustle and bustle of daily life and get into the holiday spirit, as they mark the passage into a new year.
For Koreans, Seollal – a three-day holiday marking the beginning of the Lunar New Year – means a mass exodus of people returning to their hometowns to spend quality time with families and relatives, pay respect to ancestors, play folk games and feast.
But the customs and traditions attached to this major holiday are slowly but surely fading away, as Korea becomes more wired and more high-tech.
One thing, for sure, has changed for the better: holiday travel is neither a headache nor a nightmare, but a much more entertaining journey, with the arrival of smartphones.
Korea has the highest level of smartphone ownership in the world, as nine in 10 Korean adults own a smartphone, a report released by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center showed. Earlier this week, Korea’s top mobile carriers said they are gearing up for the Seollal rush to provide a seamless service throughout the busy holiday season as people become desperate to find a route home. They announced that they are expanding their network capacity on highways, at airports and at bus terminals and deploy additional technicians.
While the holiday season cheered most Koreans up, there were also those who did not welcome – or even dreaded – it. Seollal preparation in the past was quite taxing, requiring days of kitchen labor. The responsibility lay upon married women in particular to prepare food for their families and ancestors.
But with a number of food companies now offering ready-to-eat meals as well as the success of food delivery apps such as Baemin and Yogiyo, preparing Seollal dinner tables has become a breeze. At the click of a mouse or swipe of a screen, specially packed meals, including holiday dishes, can be delivered to people’s doorstep in less than an hour.
Online retailers also eased the burden of gift shopping for family members – such as high-quality Korean beef, seasonal fruits, ginseng, fish, traditional snacks and even Spam.
According to Statistics Korea, shopping in cyberspace reached a new monthly high of 12.76 trillion won ($11 billion) last November, up 20.2 percent from a year earlier.
Another common ritual in Korea to celebrate the Lunar New Year is what is called saebae. It involves younger family members kneeling on the floor and making a full bow to their elders, who in return hand over envelopes of cold, hard cash as gifts carrying messages of good luck and prosperity. The amount of cash in those white envelopes varies.
But as mobile payment services gain popularity among Koreans, they are transferring money to children through smartphone apps. The country’s leading fintech companies like KakaoPay, which possesses more than 30 million users, are offering special digital envelopes affixed with New Year’s greetings for those transferring money over the holiday period.
After exchanging New Year’s greetings with family members, many Koreans gather in open areas to fly traditional Korean kites, called yeon, to wish away bad fortunes and for a prosperous new year. The sky gets dotted with vivid splashes of color as kite fliers try to keep their kites aloft.
But drones are slowly replacing kites as affordable, easy-to-fly drones are being introduced one after another. While complex regulations seem to have dampened the interest in hobby drones in Korea and around the world compared to when it became popular in 2015, the market for commercial drones is still growing fast.
The global drone market was estimated at $8.6 billion in 2016, with an average annual growth rate of 7.5 percent, and is expected to grow to $11.5 billion by 2020, according to a research firm, IRS Global.
Things change over time. Even traditions and customs, as it turns out, are fluid and can mingle with modern circumstances and influences. But if there is one thing that remains constant, it is that Seollal is truly a special occasion for all Koreans.