Doesn’t it seem like all the kpop groups come out with Chuseok greetings about this time of year? Yes, yes it does, because Chuseok arrives in early fall EVERY year. I decided to pick MiataMama’s brain about Chuseok because I wanted to know more than what Wikipedia was telling me. Read on for an outsider’s inside glimpse into Chuseok!
MiataMama’s Disclaimer: While I have learned a lot about Chuseok while living here in Korea, both from friends and from the Family Multi-Cultural center where I take Korean lessons, I have not actually participated in celebrating the holiday personally. It is very similar to American Thanksgiving, where people will usually celebrate with family. And since I have no Korean family, I’m just an outside observer on this holiday!
When is Chuseok?
Chuseok is celebrated at the beginning of every Fall, based on the Lunar calendar (15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar on the full moon), which is why it’s always a bit confusing for a westerner like myself, because the date varies slightly each year. Thank goodness for “red number” days on the Korean calendars, so I can keep track of all the holidays properly! This year, the Chuseok holiday falls on September 24, but the day before and the day after are also included in the official holiday. During the three-day holiday break, ALL offices and schools will be closed to allow people time to travel home to be with their families.
Why is it celebrated?
The word Chuseok, literally translated, means Autumn Eve. The primary celebration of this holiday to give thanks for the yearly harvest. But is also a time for families to visit their hometowns to participate in a bi-annual memorial service, called charye, to honor their ancestors. Those who have family buried nearby will take time to pull weeds, clean the gravesite, and pay their respects. Charye is done twice a year–during Chuseok and during Seollal (Lunar New Year). Once the memorial service is complete, the remaining time is spent catching up with family and eating yummy food!
Who celebrates it?
EVERYONE!!! As I mentioned before, like the Lunar New Year, this is a major Korean holiday and everything shuts down so people can travel home for the holiday. Because a majority of people do not have personal transportation in Korea, public transport during the holiday is BOOKED! The train and bus tickets for the dates surrounding Chuseok go on sale at a specific time each year, just for people to make their reservations. It’s like trying to buy BTS concert tickets–those dates WILL sell out immediately! If you are one of the lucky ones, you will be able to buy a seat for the round trip to your hometown. Because of the mass exodus out of the cities for this holiday, the cities themselves turn into ghost towns. My husband likes to point out that Koreans do quarterly civil defense drills to prepare for an emergency or possible evacuation. But these official drills are usually met with a rather lackluster response. A more accurate representation of Seoul being evacuated is to watch everyone leave for Chuseok! Did I already mention you should never plan to be on the road during this holiday?! The freeways are a parking lot!!
What are some of your favorite traditions surrounding Chuseok?
Okay, so I’ve been taught that Chuseok has many specific traditional elements. There are different forms of entertainment, such as samulnori (traditional percussion quartette), talchum (mask dance), ganggangsullae (Korean circle dance, performed by women under the light of the full moon), and ssireum (traditional Korean wrestling). I’ve seen samulnori performed at the several traditional folk villages, but the other dances and wrestling I’ve yet to see first hand. I’ll admit, I’m more food focused! There are always copious quantities of food for Korean celebrations, and Chuseok is no different. However, there are certain foods that are significant to this holiday. The pairing of baekseju (traditional rice liquor) and jeon (Korean pancakes) is quite popular. But my favorite is the songpyeon. This dessert item is a chewy, walnut-sized rice cake stuffed with a filling of sesame seeds, beans, red beans, and chestnuts. The songpyeon is then steamed with pine needles to give an added fragrance. My kids and I were able to participate in making this sweet treat alongside some of our Korean acquaintances a few years back. And I just have to say, fresh songpeyon is SO YUM!!!
What are some of the most unusual traditions surrounding Chuseok?
Hands down, it’s the gift packs! Koreans are one of the most generous peoples I have ever met and they don’t need the excuse of a holiday to share the love. But, for Chuseok and Lunar New Year, all the stores will roll out gift packs of various sizes and selections for your purchasing pleasure. I am both fascinated and baffled by some of these gift packs. There are of course the really expensive items, such as wild ginseng, pine mushrooms, or wine. And more modest choices like honey, dried persimmons, or freshly picked Korean pears. But the gift boxes that still make me wonder and giggle to this day are those filled with vinegar, sesame oil, canned tuna and SPAM! Yes, you read correctly. Gift boxes of SPAM. I will be perfectly honest and tell you that I have never eaten SPAM before coming to this country. However, I now look forward to the holidays, and these awesome boxes of canned ham can being humbly received by our family! It’s a Korean thing and apparently we are being assimilated!
There you have it, drama fans–THIS is what Chuseok is all about. Big thank you to MiataMama for sharing her learning with us! I intend to pepper her with random questions about Korea for years to come.
Until next time, I remain–
Karie the Maknae
Dramas with a Side of Kimchi