Thanksgiving is a holiday celebrated universally at different times of the year and in different ways. For Koreans, the traditional Thanksgiving Holiday is called Chuseok. This year it falls on September 21-23. Chuseok is in essence the Full Moon Harvest Festival. Today therefore marks the start of Chuseok.
Chuseok, originally known as Hangawi (from archaic Korean for “great middle”), is a major harvest festival and a three-day holiday in Korea celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. Like many other harvest festivals, it is held around the Autumn Equinox.
Historically and according to popular belief, Chuseok originates from Gabae. Gabae started during the reign of the third king of the kingdom of Silla (57 BC – AD 935), when it was a month-long weaving contest between two teams. Come the day of Gabae, the team that had woven more cloth had won and was treated to a feast by the losing team.
Many scholars also believe Chuseok may originate from ancient shamanistic celebrations of the harvest moon. New harvests are offered to local deities and ancestors, which means Chuseok may have originated as a worship ritual. In some areas, if there is no harvest, worship rituals are postponed, or in areas with no annual harvest, Chuseok is not celebrated.
In modern South Korea, on Chuseok there is a mass exodus of Koreans returning to their hometowns or villages to pay homage to their ancestors. Koreans wake up early on Chuseok morning to perform ancestor memorial services known as cha-rye. It is a solemn ceremony, involving an elaborate layout of food offerings. After the service, family members gather to enjoy the food blessed by their ancestors. They also visit ancestral graves to trim plants and clean the area around the tomb, and offer food, drink, and crops to their ancestors. This is known as beol-cho and considered an expression of filial piety.
Ancestor memorial services known as cha-rye
Chuseok is a time to appreciate the bountiful harvests and the representative food for this festival is songpyeon, a crescent-shaped rice cake which is steamed upon pine needles. Songpyeon is made from glutinous rice flour kneaded into the perfect dough. The dough is filled with beans, sesame seeds, chestnuts and other ingredients before it is shaped into a crescent or half-moon. This is then steamed with some pine needles that will infuse the rice cake with a wonderful fragrance. Songpyeon is to Chuseok as pumpkin pie is to Thanksgiving.
On the eve of Chuseok, it is a tradition for families to make songpyon together under the bright moon. This helps to foster ties as family members come from far and wide to enjoy the moment.
Other foods commonly prepared are jeon, japchae and bulgogi.
Jeon are savory pancakes made from various vegetables, sliced fish meat, minced pork or beef.
Korean jeon pancakes
Japchae (jabchae, chapchae) is a Korean dish made from cellophane noodles (called dangmyeon), stir fried in sesame oil with various vegetables (typically thinly-sliced carrots, onion, spinach, and mushrooms), sometimes served with beef, and flavoured with soy sauce, and sweetened with sugar. It is usually served garnished with sesame seeds and slivers of chili. It may be served either hot or cold.
Bulgogi is a Korean dish that usually consists of thin slices of sirloin or other prime cuts of beef marinated with a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic and other ingredients such as scallions, or mushrooms, especially white button mushrooms or shiitake. Bulgogi literally means “fire meat” in Korean, which refers to the cooking technique -over an open flame – rather than the dish’s spiciness. The term is also applied to variations such as dak bulgogi (made with chicken) or dwaeji bulgogi (made with pork), although the seasonings are different.
A variety of folk games are played on Chuseok to celebrate the coming of Autumn and rich harvest. Village folk dress themselves to look like a cow or a turtle, and go from house to house along with a Nongak band playing music. Other common folk games played on Chuseok are tug of war, ssireum and archery. Folk games also vary from region to region. Ganggangsullae dance which is forming a circle under a moon is performed by women and children in southwestern coastal regions, and cockfight or bullfighting in the southern regions.
Nongak band playing music
Ganggang sullae dance
In Korea, during the days prior to the actually holiday, streets and stores are packed with shoppers buying food and gifts. Gift-giving is an important aspect of the holiday. Liquor is often given to colleagues and work supervisors.
As for travel, Chuseok is similar to the U.S. and Europe around the Christmas Holidays. Each year record numbers of Koreans jam the roads, rail lines, and airports with holiday traffic. In fact, most airline and train travel has been booked for months.
Korea’s rapid industrialization, urbanization, and globalization have changed the way of life in Korea but in the celebration of Chuseok, family remains the bedrock of Korean society. Chuseok underlines how – in the face of rapid industrialization and modernization – Korean culture still imbues family ties with great importance and tries to maintain continuity between older and younger generations.
To all Koreans, let me wish you all:
Chuseok jal ji nae sae yo