Cultural History of Celebrating Chuseok
With the fall season bringing forth holidays galore, many people around the world come together to celebrate their culture’s holidays. One of the most important holidays in Korea, Chuseok (추석), has been compared to the American tradition of Thanksgiving, but it holds a rich and old history of family, heritage, and remembrance.
Chuseok, historically known as Hangawi (한가위), is one of Korea’s biggest national holidays celebrated by all. It typically occurs during the first full harvest moon on the 15th day of the eighth month on the lunar calendar, celebrating the autumn harvest. Chuseok, celebrated this year on October 4-6, is a memorial tradition to honor one’s ancestors and heritage following the harvest festivities. The first recollection of Chuseok in history was mentioned in China and Japan as jingchu (中秋, mid-autumn festival), which is believed to have been merged with the word weolseok (月夕, the eve) during the Silla period in Korea to form the word “chu-seok.” Along with the bountiful ripening of rice and fruits from the harvest, there is an emphasis placed on family with strong ties to filial piety and Confucian teachings, which have been associated with Chuseok for the past two and a half millennia.
During this time of celebration and remembrance, the majority of Koreans disconnect from everything to allow families to travel and come together, emphasizing the importance of family in Korean society. One of the first events that occur is Charye (차례), a memorial ceremony offering tribute foods arranged on a table to honor the past generations of ancestors. This is usually followed by Seongmyo (성묘), which is when families visit their ancestors’ graves to perform Beolcho (벌초), the cleaning of the gravesites, and they typically leave tribute food or wine.
Along with the cultural traditions of Chuseok comes the food and games that accompany the festivities. Many families enjoy a grand feast consisting of the local produce that is in season. A special food associated with Chuseok is songpyeon (송편), a glutinous sweet rice cake shaped in a half-moon shape that is usually stuffed with red beans, sesame seeds, chestnuts, mung bean, sweet potato, or other fillings, and is steamed over a bed of pine needles which give it its unique fragrance that has been dated back to the Goryeo period.
During this time, some people may choose to wear traditional outfits for Chuseok, called Chuseokbim (추석빔,) and perform songs and dances. Others may also shop for new modern clothing to wear as it is a custom to buy new outfits for Chuseok. As part of the festivities, women dressed in the traditional hanbok (한복) will link hands and perform a large circle dance called ganggansullae (강강술래) that originated in the Jeolla Namdo Province over 5,000 years ago. Traditionally performed under a full moon, the circle dance began during the Japanese invasion during the 16th century where women dressed up as soldiers and circled Mount Okmae as a scare tactic to make it seem as though the Korean army was larger in number.
Families spend time with one another telling stories, visiting their hometown or village, and attending live performances. Chuseok also has a strong tie to ssireum (씨름), a traditional national sport known as Korean wrestling, that many may know from Idol Star Olympics or Running Man. Many villages may hold ssireum events or competitions that all can participate in.
Additional Holidays To Look Forward To
This year, the lunar calendar falls in line with a handful of other Korean holidays in October. It marks the longest holiday weekend of 2017 with back-to-back holidays for a whole week of fun. National Foundation Day, celebrated on October 3, starts off the week with the national holiday that celebrates the founding of Korea by Tangun in 2333 BC before jumping into the Chuseok festivities. Hangul Day brings up the rear on October 9 to commemorate the invention of the Korean alphabet by King Sejong in 1446, which started becoming celebrated in the 1920s to preserve the Korean alphabet while under Japanese colonial rule.