Lunar calendar in our culture

Bomi Yoon

By Sho Chang-young

Sho Chang-young

The lunar calendar system has significantly influenced the cultural sentiments of the Korean people, shaping various aspects of their lives until recently. It’s a bit similar to other East Asian countries, yet unique. Sometimes it works in ways not easily acceptable at first.

For instance, at the time when I was born, ordinary people celebrated their birthdays according to the lunar calendar although the solar calendar was officially used. So, my parents registered my birth according to the lunar calendar, and the official in charge processed the related documents considering my lunar birthday as the solar one.

Therefore, my birthday, which appears on my ID cards, isn’t the same as my real birthday given the solar calendar. It’s just a lunar calendar date expressed in the shape of the solar calendar system. This is common among baby boomers in Korea. To check your exact birthday, you must refer to the lunar calendar every year, or you have to convert it to a solar calendar date and remember it. Then, what is the role and reality of the lunar calendar for us?

The lunar calendar has a rich history in our society. Its origins can be traced to the country’s agrarian society, where the rhythm of agricultural activities was closely tied to lunar phases. The lunar calendar not only served as a tool for tracking time but also became intertwined with religious and cultural practices.

One of the most notable influences of the lunar calendar is observed in the celebration of traditional festivals. “Seollal,” the Lunar New Year and, “Chuseok,” also known as Korean Thanksgiving Day are two major festivals deeply rooted in lunar calendar traditions. These celebrations mark the beginning of spring and fall, reflecting the agricultural significance of these seasons in Korean culture.

During Seollal and Chuseok, families gather to pay respects to their ancestors through a ritual called “charye.” This practice is guided by the lunar calendar, emphasizing the importance of maintaining strong family ties and honoring one’s heritage. The lunar calendar plays a pivotal role in determining the dates for such family-centric events, emphasizing the harmony between nature, family and tradition. We, the baby boomers, in particular, have a lot of memories related to this.

The basic concept of the lunar calendar also influences various seasonal customs and practices. The 24 solar terms, or “Jeol,” divide the year into 24 segments, each marking a specific astronomical event. These terms guide agricultural activities, such as planting and harvesting, reflecting the intimate connection between the lunar calendar, solar calendar and the country’s agrarian roots. Because of this, some people still falsely believe that the 24 solar terms originated solely from the lunar calendar.

The lunar calendar is also deeply connected to astrology (or fortune-telling) and traditional beliefs. Many Koreans believe that one’s personality and fate are influenced by the lunar year of their birth. This belief is rooted in the Zodiac animals associated with each lunar year, contributing to the cultural significance of the lunar calendar in shaping individual identities.

From festivals and family gatherings to agricultural practices and astrology, the lunar calendar weaves its threads through the fabric of Korean society, connecting the past with the present. As South Korea continues to evolve in the modern world, the lunar calendar remains a resilient force, reminding its people of the rich cultural heritage that defines their identity.

In that sense, I think it is quite natural and culturally understandable to celebrate the New Year twice, in the solar and lunar calendars. And I would like to come up with New Year’s resolutions again in the upcoming Lunar New Year.

The writer (sochan57@naver.com) is a retired principal of Gunsan Girls’ High School.

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