Korean Thanksgiving Day – Chuseok
Although Korean Thanksgiving Day – Chuseok is just one of the big holidays in Korea, it is by far the biggest and most important. Family members from near and far come together to share food, stories and give thanks to their ancestors for the abundant harvest. This year (2009), Korea’s representative traditional holiday of Chuseok falls on October 3rd of the solar calendar. It will last three days, from October 2nd to October 4th and marks a prime opportunity for foreign visitors to tour Korea’s cities and experience Korea’s culture while all the bustling crowds are away visiting family relatives. Let us look a little deeper at what Korean Thanksgiving Day – Chuseok represents for Koreans.
Korean Thanksgiving Day – Chuseok
Korean Thanksgiving Day – Chuseok (or Hangawi)
As one of Korea’s three major holidays, the other two being Seollal (New Year’s Day) and Dano (the 5th of the 5th month of the year according to the lunar calendar), Chuseok is also referred to as Hangawi, which means the ides of August, or August 15th, according to the lunar calendar. Hangawi was the day on which Koreans, an agrarian people throughout most of history, thanked their ancestors for the year’s harvest and shared their abundance with family and friends. Although the exact origin of Chuseok is unclear, the tradition can be traced back to ancient religious practices focusing on the role of the moon. The sun’s presence was considered routine, but the full moon that came once a month, brightening the dark night, was considered a special and meaningful event. Therefore, festivities took place on the day of the largest full moon, August 15th of the lunar calendar, which became one of the most important days of celebration throughout Korea to this day.
Korean Thanksgiving Day – Chuseok Customs
On the morning of Chuseok Day, Songpyeon (a type of Korean rice cakes) and food prepared with the year’s fresh harvest are set out to give thanks to ancestors through Charye (ancestor memorial service). After Charye, families visit their ancestors’ graves and engage in Beolcho, ritual clearing of any weeds that have grown around the burial grounds. As the night nears, families and friends enjoy the beautiful view of the full harvest moon and play folk games such as Ganggangsullae (Korean circle dance).
- Charye (ancestor memorial services) – On Chuseok morning, family members gather at their homes to hold memorial services in honor of their ancestors called Charye. Formal Charye services are held twice a year during Seollal (New Year’s Day) and Chuseok. The difference between the two services is that during Seollal the major representative food is white tteokguk, a rice cake soup, while during Chuseok the major representative food is freshly harvested rice. After the service, the family members sit down together at the table to enjoy delicious food that symbolizes their blessings.
- Beolcho (removing weeds around the grave) and Seongmyo (visiting ancestral graves) – Visiting ancestral graves during Chuseok is known as ‘Seongmyo’ and during this visit, family members usually remove the weeds that have grown around the graves in the summer season. Taking care of the ancestral graves and clearing the weeds is called ‘Beolcho’. This custom is considered a duty and expression of devotion. On the weekends, about one month prior to the Chuseok holidays, Korea’s highways become extremely congested with families visiting their ancestral graves to fulfill their familial duties.
- Ssireum (Korean wrestling) – In the past, the strongest of the villagers gathered to hold wrestling competitions. The sport of wrestling on sand while being surrounded by spectators became a traditional favorite in Korea. The last wrestler standing was considered the winner and was acknowledged as the villager’s strongest man and took home cotton, rice, or a calf as his prize. Today, Ssireum (Korean wrestling) competitions are still held in the form of one-on-one folk competitions to determine the strongest man in Korea.
- Ganggangsullae (Korean circle dance) – Mothers and daughters dressed in hanbok (traditional Korean clothings) gather around in a circle, holding hands and singing together. This dance originated from the Joseon Dynasty during the Japanese invasion when the Korean army dressed Korean mothers and daughters in military uniforms and had them circle a mountain peak to make the Japanese think the Korean military was greater in number than it actually was. Through this strategy, the Koreans were eventually able to defeat the Japanese.
- Chuseokbim (Chuseok dress) – Traditionally, as part of Chuseok, the head of the household would buy new clothes for everyone, including the servants. This custom was known as Chuseokbim. Usually, a traditional hanbok was worn, but nowadays newly purchased clothes are not limited to hanbok. Today, families will often wear a modern type of hanbok called Chuseokbim, hold Charye services, and enjoy their time together.
Korean Thanksgiving Day – Chuseok Food
- Songpyeon – Songpyeon is one of the representative snacks of Chuseok. This rice cake is prepared with rice or non-glutinous rice powder that is kneaded into the perfect size, then filled with sesame seeds, beans, red beans, chestnuts, and a host of other nutritious foods. When steaming the songpyeon, the bottoms of the rice cakes are layered with pine needles, giving the rice cakes the delightful fragrance of pine needles. On the eve of Chuseok, the entire family gathers together to make songpyeon under the bright moon. There is an old Korean saying that says that the person who makes the most beautiful songpyeon will meet a good-looking spouse. Therefore, the single members of the family try their best to make the finest looking Songpyeon as they laugh out loud in merriment. View Songpyeon and learn how to make Songpyeon.
- Liquors – Another major element of Chuseok is traditional liquor. People who look forward to this major holiday are also rich in generosity and like to share their generosity over drinks.