Chuseok (추석) is the biggest and most important holiday in Korea. Family members from near and far come together to share food and stories and to give thanks to their ancestors for the abundant harvest. Chuseok Day falls on September 19 in 2013, but the holiday is observed for a total of three days (September 18 – 20). Fortunately, this year’s Chuseok holidays fall from Wednesday through Friday, giving making it a five-day holiday in total. Many Koreans will visit the homes of their families to spend quality time together. The holidays provide a good opportunity to enjoy traditional cultural experiences. Let’s take a closer look at Chuseok, a traditional Korean holiday.
The meaning of Chuseok (Hangawi)
Chuseok is one of Korea’s three major holidays, along with Seollal (New Year’s Day) and Dano (the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar year) and is also referred to as Hangawi (한가위). Han means “big” and gawi means “the ides of August/Autumn” (August 15th according to the lunar calendar is when the full harvest moon appears). Hangawi/Chuseok was the day on which Koreans, an agrarian people throughout most of history, gave thanks to 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 may be found at ancient religious practices that centered around the moon. The sun’s presence was considered routine, but the full moon that came once a month was considered a special and meaningful event. Therefore, harvest festivities took place on the day of the bright, full moon or August 15 on the lunar calendar system.
On the morning of Chuseok Day, foods 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, a ritual of clearing the weeds that may have grown up over the burial mound. After dusk, families and friends take walks and gaze at the beauty of the full harvest moon or 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 (called Charye, 차례) in honor of their ancestors. Formal Charye services are held twice a year: during Seollal (Lunar New Year’s Day) and Chuseok. The difference between the two services is that during Seollal the major representative food is Tteokguk, a rice cake soup, while during Chuseok the major representative foods are freshly harvested rice, alcohol and songpyeon (rice cakes). After the service, family members sit down together at the table to enjoy delicious food.
Beolcho (clearing the weeds around the grave) and Seongmyo (visiting ancestral graves)
Visiting ancestral graves during Chuseok is known as Seongmyo (성묘). During this visit, family members remove the weeds that have grown around the graves in the summer season, a practice which is called Beolcho (벌초). This custom is considered a duty and expression of devotion and respect for one’s family. 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. The graves are then visited again during Chuseok.
Ssireum (Korean wrestling)
During the match, two competitors face each other in the middle of a circular sandpit and try to pin their opponent using their strength and skills, running through a one on one tournament. The last wrestler left standing after a series of competitions is considered the winner and is named the village’s strongest man, taking home cotton, rice, or a calf as his prize.
Ganggangsullae (Korean circle dance)
In this dance, women dressed in Hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) join hands in a circle and sing together on a night when the full harvest moon appears or on Chuseok. There are several stories about its origin. One of the most well-known story says that the dance dates back to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) when the Korean army used to dress the young women of the village in military uniforms and had them circle the mountains to look like that the Korean military was greater in number than it actually was from the enemy side. The Korean army enjoyed many victories thanks in part to this scare tactic.
Chuseokbim (Chuseok dress)
Bim refers adorning oneself with new clothes for holidays or parties. Broadly speaking, there are two bims: seolbim and chuseokbim. In the past, people adorned themselves with Korean traditional dress, hanbok, but people currently purchase new western clothes or do not prepare bim at all.
Chuseok celebrates the rich harvest season when fruit and grain are abundant. Using the newly harvested rice, people make steamed rice, rice cakes, and liquor.
Songpyeon (송편) is one of the quintessential dishes for Chuseok. This rice cake is prepared with rice powder that is kneaded into a size that is a little smaller than a golf ball, and then filled with sesame seed, beans, red beans, chestnuts, or other nutritious ingredients. When steaming the songpyeon, the rice cakes are layered with pine needles to add the delightful fragrance of pine. On the eve of Chuseok, the entire family gathers together to make songpyeon. An old Korean anecdote says that the person who makes beautifully-shaped songpyeon will meet a good spouse or give birth to a beautiful baby. It is no wonder that all the single members of a family try their best to make the most beautiful songpyeon!
Another major element of Chuseok is traditional liquor. On Chuseok, families and relatives gather together and hold a memorial service for their ancestors with liquor made of the newly harvest rice. After the memorial service, they sit together and spend some time together as a family, drinking the liquor and eating the food.
Recommended Places to Visit for the Chuseok Holidays
During Chuseok, many cultural sites including the ancient palaces in Seoul, Korean Folk Village and Namsangol Hanok Village host special holiday events for visitors. This year, Korean Folk Village and Namsangol Hanok Village will hold folk games and traditional performances from September 18 to 20. The four major ancient palaces in Seoul (Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace and Huwon [UNESCO World Heritage], Changgyeonggung Palace, and Deoksugung Palace) as well as Jongmyo Shrine will also be holding special Chuseok holiday programs. Moreover, from September 18 through 20, the palaces, the shrine and Joseon Royal Tombs will offer free admission to visitors wearing hanbok.
If you are looking to delve even deeper into the meaning of Chuseok, visit the Korean Folk Village for their special holiday programs, including reenactment of Chuseok customs and ancestral rites, songpyeon making, nongak (farmers’ music), tight-rope walking, and martial arts on horseback. In addition, the Tourist Information Center (TIC) of Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), Cheonggyecheon Plaza, and Children’s Grand Park will also be holding special Chuseok holiday events.
During the holiday season, make sure to double-check the operation hours of your desired destinations, since most places of business are closed at some point during the Chuseok holidays. Folk event venues listed above and many major tourist attractions are open year-around. For more Chuseok holiday information, please check the following links.
Last Updated, August 28, 2013