As I prepare for a nice 12-day break from school because of Chuseok, the biggest holiday celebrated in Korea. Many in the world are oblivious to what it even means. What is Chuseok? Why do Koreans celebrate it? What does it entail? Where do the people go? Why are large party sets of Spam and colorful rice cakes involved? When is it? Why should I be worried? All this and more will be explained in due time, dear reader.
Chuseok at a Glance
So… first off, the basics. Chuseok (추석) is basically a harvest festival celebrated in the Korean peninsula, likened to Thanksgiving. It’s origins are mixed, but a common belief is that it comes from the ancient kingdom of Silla. Back then, it was known as Gabae (가배). Some say it was to mark the victory against the rival kingdom of Baekje, or a shamanistic celebration of the harvest moon, others say it was due to some intense village weaving contest.
What we do know is that Chuseok in a modern setting is a time when Koreans head back to their hometowns. And since 3/4ths of the population live in Seoul, that means a huge temporary de-urbanization occurs when hundreds of thousands of people find their way back to the countryside. In their hometowns, they reconnect with old friends and spend quality time with their families. Though in more recent years, trends have shown a lot more people take family trips to either experience traditional cultural experiences in other cities or travel abroad. In the end, a lot of people are moving around and making the most of the holiday.
Thanks to President Moon’s administration, the full Chuseok holiday period for 2017 is from September 30th to October 9th. Chuseok is normally celebrated for two days, starting from the 15th day of the 8th month on the lunar calendar. This year, it would be from October 4th to October 6th.
Charye, Seongmyo and Beolcho
The first morning of Chuseok, Charye (차례) is observed. Charye is a small memorial service for the ancestors and held with the whole family. To return the favor and honor the ancestors, traditional foods are arranged specifically on a small altar table. Foods usually include Songpyeon (송편), the small colorful rice cakes; rice; and a variety of fruits. You might also see generous bottles of Makgeolli, Soju, and other Baekseju in the mix.
After the memorial service, there is one large meal with the family. Plates of various jeon, japchae, bulgogi, and fruits are in the normal lineup for the feast and regional or family specialties might grace the table as well.
On the second day, Seongmyo and Beolcho is usually observed. Seongmyo (성묘) is another old tradition of ancestral worship, which is a visit to the ancestral graves. And with it comes Beolcho (벌초) or plucking the weeds around the ancestral graves as a sign of true devotion.
The Spirit of Gift Giving
Whether you’ve been honored with an invitation to spend Chuseok with a friend’s family or visiting your own family over the holidays, gifts are always welcome. This is where large sets of Spam, red ginseng, or raw beef come to play. Though these particular common gifts are quite extravagant ranging anywhere between 100,000won to 500,000won. But it gets even more exorbitant. How so? Well… how about a six bottle set of wine from Lotte Department Store priced at 33 million won? Obviously you don’t have to be as lavish about gift giving, there’s no real protocol in place to follow. A small food-related gift set is usually the way to go.
Foreigners in Korea
If you haven’t planned ahead and booked flights out of Korea for Chuseok. I sincerely wish you good luck. Today, September 29th – according to Arirang News, nearly 100,000 people are flying out of Incheon. The next few days many more people are expected to leave from Incheon Airport. If there are tickets left, they may be overpriced or at inconvenient times. The train stations, airports, roads, and bus terminals become congested with traffic. When Chuseok arrives, the city becomes more empty and desolate than normal.
Lucky for you, if you’re able to spend the Chuseok with a family. But for those with free time on their hands in Seoul, there are many opportunities you can take advantage of – from free entrances to the royal palaces to discounted rates at Everland and Caribbean Bay. So make the most of your Chuseok and have a good time! 즐거운 추석 보내세요!