15 September 2016 is Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) in South Korea and this is one of the important traditional festivals for Koreans. I have talked about the Chuseok gifts that Koreans may buy in the blog post dated 2 February 2015. Let’s talk about some more interesting customs about the Korean Chuseok in this blog post.
What is Chuseok (추석)?
“Chu” (추) literally means “autumn” and “seok” (석) literally means “evening” and it is usually taken to mean the autumn evening with the brightest moon – Chuseok falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar when there is a full moon. Chuseok is also known as “hangawi” (한가위). In the traditional agricultural society, this is a time for the farmers to relax and enjoy after harvesting their crops. There is a Korean proverb saying, “a farmer in May, Shinseon (Taoist god) in August” (오월 농부 팔월 신선) which means that a farmer who has no respite in May can rest with no worries in August.
In the traditional agricultural society, the full moon was a symbol of prosperity and fertility and was associated with ripe plants full of grain. In the past, the Korean farmers tried to predict the harvest for the coming season based on the weather on Chuseok – the ideal weather was a partly cloudy sky because rainy weather was considered as an omen of poor crop yields, the moon being completely enshrouded by clouds meant that buckwheat and other grains could not flourish, and a clear sky was considered as a bad sign for barley farming.
Chuseok is a time of thanksgiving and the Koreans have several customs for this purpose. Although different places may have slightly different customs and/or their own specific customs, there are some common ones like the following:
Several days before Chuseok, the Koreans go to their ancestral tombs to pay their respect and clear the weeds around the tombs. Usually, they do this once in spring but as the weeds come out again after the summer season, the Koreans go to the ancestral tombs again before Chuseok to pay their respect and clear the weeds. If one’s ancestral tomb is surrounded by weeds, it is considered an unlucky sign and a shame for the descendants.
In the morning of Chuseok, the Koreans perform charye (차례 – ancestral worship ceremony) at home, and dozens of dishes (including newly-harvested rice and seasonal food) are put on the offering table of charye. For example, bite-sized half-moon-shaped rice cakes stuffed with sweet fillings called songpyeon (송편 – rice cake steamed with pine needles) is a must. After charye, the food used for charye are eaten by family members and shared with relatives and neighbours.
Songpyeon (송편) – Representative Korean Chuseok dish
Songpyeon (rice cake steamed with pine needles) is a “must” food for Chuseok. If you happen to be in South Korea around Chuseok, you can easily find these half-moon-shaped songpyeon with different colours in the streets. It is made using newly-harvested rice, stuffed with fillings like cooked soybeans, sesame seeds and crushed chestnuts, and steamed over a bed of pine needless (which gives it a fragrant smell of pine trees). Although songpyeon can be bought in shops, many Koreans like to make songpyeon at home on the eve of Chuseok and share the homemade songpyeon with family members, friends and neighbours. There is a belief that a female who makes beautifully-shaped songpyeon will find a good husband (if not yet married) or will give birth to a beautiful baby (if married).
Ganggangsullae (강강술래) – Korean circle dance
Ganggangsullae is a circle dance performed by women which combines group entertainment with dancing and singing. It is performed outdoors on the night of Chuseok under the full moon. Ganggangsullae historically was performed as a farming rite on Chuseok to please and enterain the gods. It was designated as Important Intangible Cultural Treasure No.8 of South Korea in 1966 and UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2009.
There are many different sayings about the origin of ganggangsullae. There is a saying that it was invented by the famous Korean Admiral Yi Sun-shin during the invasion of the Japanese of Korea’s coastal regions in the 16th century to trick the enemy – Korean women dressed in military uniform sang and danced around night-time campfires on the mountains along the coast to make the Korean military look greater in number than it actually was from the enemy’s side. However, regardless of how it originated, ganggangsullae has now become a form of folk entertainment of the Koreans.
For ganggangsullae, the women dressed in hanbok join hands in a circle and begin singing and dancing at a slow tempo which gradually accelerates and culminates in a fast-paced finale. You can watch a video of ganggangsullae performance by clicking this link.
Places to go to experience Chuseok culture
If you are in Seoul around Chuseok and want to enjoy the festival with the others, there are a number of places you can go to in Seoul. For example, the Korean Folk Village provides various special experience programs like performance of Chuseok customs and ancestral rites and making of songpyeon during the period from 3 to 18 September 2016. The National Folk Museum of Korea offers Chuseok-related activities like sharing Chuseok food (e.g., songpyeon), preparing charye table, and folk games for visitors from 14 to 18 September 2016.
Chuseok – a blessing or a burden?
As Chuseok is one of the important festivals for Koreans, Chuseok is one of the occasions on which the family members and relatives gather together. In South Korea, usually there are 3 days’ national holidays covering Chuseok and the days before and after Chuseok.
Given the consecutive public holidays, many Koreans go back to their hometowns to spend time with their family members and relatives. As a result, there is usually congestion on the roads and a rush for train tickets around Chuseok. Housewives are also busy preparing the necessary Chuseok food for charye and serving the family members and relatives during the family gatherings.
While Chuseok is a good time for family gatherings, many Koreans complain about stress due to Chuseok. For example, the traffic congestion experienced from travelling for hours to the hometowns can be very stressful. Women complain of ailments such as migraines, backache, muscle pain, nausea, loss of appetite, digestive disorders, and carpal tunnel syndrome (a painful nerve condition affecting the wrist), probably due to the increasing household chores for Chuseok, nagging mother-in-laws and indifferent attitude from family members. Men also complain of physical pain due to driving at a snail-pace on the highways for hours and the stress of being a mediator between their wives and mothers (who meet during the family gatherings).
On the other hand, Chuseok may mean heavy financial burden for many Koreans. For example, an average family may spend about 200,000 won (USD180) to prepare food for the charye table. On top of this, meals for the gatherings of the extended family cost even more. Moreover, people need to buy expensive Chuseok gifts for their family members, friends and business acquaintances, and a recent survey shows that an average person may spend about 180,000 won on gifts this year. Expensive gifts are considered necessary in the Korean society in which many people are still preoccupied with keeping up with the Joneses.
Chuseok customs are changing…
Nowadays, more Koreans, especially the younger working generation, consider Chuseok as a good break for oneself to relieve the stress of daily work. There is a new term called “Chucance” which combines “Chu” (the first part of the word “Chuseok”) and “cance” (derived from the French word “vacance” which means “vacation”).
According to a survey conducted by the market researcher, Trend Monitor, on 1,000 Koreans in 2014, 50% of the respondents considered Chuseok as a mere break from daily work stress, up from 38% in 2011. According to a survey done by Duo, a Korean matching making agency, on 142 married respondents in their 20’s and 30’s in 2014, 78% said that they would not visit their parents during Chuseok. The main reasons were: no pressure from their parents to take the long trip home (31.5%), having made other travel plans (29.7%), taking a rest (14.4%) or wanting to avoid the heavy traffic during the holiday exodus (10.8%). Instead of visiting their parents, the holiday plans of these respondents were: travelling (30%), eating out (28.8%), just resting at home (21.6%) or doing other leisure activities (9%). According to the travel agency, Hana Tour, people travelling abroad increased by 13% this year compared to the same period in 2014.
On the other hand, many women order ready-made food for charye online instead of preparing them themselves at home. An increasing number of people go to plastic surgery clinics which remain open during the Chuseok holidays to upgrade their looks, especially when more children pay for wrinkle-reduction surgery or Botox injections for their aging parents as holiday gifts.
Whether you are in South Korea during Chuseok or not, at this time of thanksgiving, try to enjoy it by giving yourself a good break. Happy Chuseok! 🙂
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Kim Hoo-ran, “Be grateful this Chuseok“, Korea Herald, 2015-09-17
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Kim Min-ji, “Evolving Chuseok customs“, Arirang News, 2014-09-07
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Korea Tourism Organization, “Ganggangsullae Dance”