Lanterns on Buddha’s Birthday
South Korea celebrates 15 national holidays per year, which are paid vacation at most schools we work with. Some holidays are based on the lunar calendar and change dates every year, and some are based on the solar (Western) calendar and are on the same day every year. Most schools offer a full week of vacation at the end of July and the days between Christmas and New Year’s. Holidays are always paid in full (i.e. no deduction from regular salary is made). Here is a brief explanation of Korean holidays.
New Year’s Day (January 1)
Most Koreans celebrate both Western New Year and Lunar New Year. Koreans count themselves one year older on January 1, not their actual birthdays. Note that when a baby is born in Korea, it is automatically “one year old.” The next January 1, the baby is “two years old.” Thus, Koreans are usually between one and two years younger than they count themselves as. This can be important when dealing with younger children. If you’re told you’re going to be teaching five-year olds, double check if this is ‘Korean age’ (i.e. three and four year olds) or ‘Western age’. All ages used on this site are ‘Western’.
Seollal, or Lunar New Year (Varies from late January to late February)
This is the second most important holiday in Korea. Families generally reunite (which means book ahead if you want to go anywhere). This is the most prominent occasion on which Koreans honor their ancestors and older living relatives. Young people usually receive gifts of cash (sometimes quite sizeable) in exchange for correctly executing a traditional bow in front of elders; the bow for girls is particularly difficult and many-a-teenage-girl ends up with a bruised tailbone, but usually still gets her red envelope. Normally, red envelopes are used for gifts of cash and white envelopes are used for cash payment payment.
Samil Independence Movement Day (March 1)
This day marks the beginning of the independence movement against the Japanese during their colonial rule. On this day in 1919, leaders of social and religious circles gathered at a park in central Seoul and declared Korea‘s independence from Japan, which had annexed Korea with tacit U.S. approval, in 1910. In recent years it has come to be a holiday that celebrates (and asserts) Korea‘s independence from all foreign powers, including the U.S. This is the one day of the year that American and Japanese nationals may want to lay low.
Buddha’s Birthday (Varies in April or May)
Solemn rituals are held at Buddhist temples across the country. The day’s festivities reach their climax when monks and laymen march through city streets with beautiful paper lanterns. This holiday is always one working day and is fixed according to the lunar calendar (no long weekends of convenience).
Children’s Day (May 5)
This is an official holiday. Children receive gifts from parents and are taken on family outings.
Parents’ Day (May 8)
This is not an official holiday; however, most families observe it with children giving parents carnations and letters of appreciation. Do not expect a day off work.
Teacher’s Day (May 15)
Ironically, this day is not a holiday for most teachers in Korea. However, you can expect to be showered with gifts from parents; some may be surprisingly substantial.
Constitution Day (July 17)
This day celebrates the establishment of the first Korean constitution on July 17, 1948. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) was officially established about a month later.
Liberation Day (August 15)
Japan surrendered to the United States on this day in 1945. It is celebrated by Koreans as the official end to Japanese colonial rule and the beginning of the modern era in Korea.
Chuseok (Varies, but usually in September)
This is the 15th day of the 8th lunar month on the lunar calendar. The full moon on this day is what Westerners sometimes refer to as a “harvest moon.” At Chuseok and Lunar New Years, it is common for Koreans to wear traditional clothing, called Hanbok. This is especially true for the elderly and for children. On Chuseok day, the moon appears larger than usual and is often orange in color in the Northern Hemisphere. Celebrated in many Asian countries that follow the lunar calendar, this is the biggest holiday of the year in Korea. The day before, and sometimes the day after, Chuseok are official holidays as well. Almost all Koreans will make their way to their traditional family homes for the holiday. Plan any travel WELL ahead. Koreans often refer to this holiday as “Korean Thanksgiving” in English.
National Foundation Day (October 3)
Called Gaecheonjeol Day, this is the day when Dangun (the mythical “first Korean.”) was supposed to have founded the Korean nation about 4,300 years ago. Ask locals for the full story — it’s quite surprising.
Christmas (December 25)
Christmas Day is an official holiday since about half of Koreans who claim a religion are Christian. Quite differently from the West, young people go out to parties on December 25 and spend January 1 and/or December 31 with their families. You will have to work on December 24 and December 26. Christmas Eve and Boxing Day have no special significance in Korea and Christmas Day itself may feel more like any-old-day off to Westerners. Note that in many Asian countries, December 25 is not a holiday at all. Many language schools offer December 25 through January 2 as a paid winter break.