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Chuseok (추석) – one of the biggest and most important holidays in Korea

It’s that time of year again, it’s the time of Korean Thanksgiving, also known as “Chuseok“!

The Meaning of Chuseok (Hangawi)

Chuseok is one of Korea’s three major holidays, along with Seollal (Lunar New Year’s Day) and Dano (the 5th day of the 5th lunar month).

Chuseok is also referred to as hangawiHan means “big” and gawi means “the ides of the 8th lunar month or autumn.” According to the lunar calendar, the harvest moon, the largest full moon of the year, appears on the 15th day of the eighth month. This year it is celebrated between 23 September to 25 September.

Chuseok is a harvest festival that the whole nation celebrates together. Many scholars claim that it originates from the shamanistic worship ritual of giving thanks to the harvest moon and ancestors.

Farmers would show their gratitude and pay homage to their ancestors by presenting them with their new harvest, believing they would spend the coming winter with warmth and plenty of food and have a rich harvest for the coming year. They would then share their food with friends, family, and neighbors.

Nowadays, it’s a time when people take a break from their busy lives to head home and spend time with their family and friends.

Traditions and Customs of Chuseok:

  • Charye (ancestor memorial services)

charye

charye

Charye” is an ancestor memorial ritual that has been carried out for thousands of years in Korea.

On the morning of Chuseok, family members gather in their homes to hold a memorial service for their ancestors, usually up to around four generations above.

During the ceremony, food, fruits, and beverages are offered to them. Each dish has a designated spot on the table and there are set processes such as lighting candles before alcohol is poured into three different cups and bowing twice afterward.

After the ceremony, everyone sits together to enjoy the delicious food they prepared and used for the ceremony as they reunite and bond with their family members.

  • Seongmyo (visit to family graves)

Seongmyo

Seongmyo

Another traditional custom of Chuseok is seongmyo, or visit to the ancestral graves.

Seongmyo is an old tradition that is still carried out to show respect and appreciation for family ancestors.

While visiting graves during seongmyo, South Koreans will clean headstones and the area around the grave through a process known as beolcho.

During beolcho, people may pull weeds, plant flowers, scrub dirt off of headstones, and rake fresh dirt to the surface of the grave plot.

This is a process that is representative of the filial piety and respect for ancestors that is common in South Korean culture.

  • Chuseokbim

Chuseokbim

Chuseokbim

Just as the Chinese purchase new clothes during the lunar New Year, it is a custom of South Korean to buy new outfits before Chuseok.

Traditionally, South Koreans would purchase traditional hanbok to celebrate the holiday. While some people still do uphold the old traditions of Chuseokbim, many South Koreans opt to purchase Western style dresses and suits instead.

  • Traditional Folk Games

As Chuseok is a celebration of harvest and abundance, the holiday period is made joyful with various entertainment and folk games such as:

Samulnori (traditional percussion quartette)

Samulnori basically means “four instruments” and refers to the four instruments played by the musicians. With roots in Buddhist and farmers music, the style has changed through the years and evolved in different ways.

– Ganggangsullae (Korean circle dance)

Ganggangsullae is performed during Jeongwol Daeboreum (celebration of 15th day of the first lunar calendar) and Chuseok.

In this dance, women dressed in hanbok join hands in a large circle and sing together on the night of the first full moon and on Chuseok.

There are several stories about its origin. One of the most well-known stories 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 give off the appearance that the Korean military was greater in number than it actually was from the enemy side. The Korean army enjoyed many victories thanks to this scare tactic.

– Ssireum (traditional Korean wrestling).

Ssireum 

Ssireum

Ssireum, another significant traditional entertainment, is a one-on-one wrestling match held on a circular sand pit that requires strength and skills.

 In some areas of South Korea, large Ssireum competitions are held to determine the strongest man among the villages.

The way the contest works is that two men enter the ring and wrestle until one of their upper bodies’ touches the ground. The person whose upper body touched the ground is eliminate and a new challenger enters the ring. This continues until their are no more challengers.

The last person standing in the ring when all of the challengers have been eliminated is considered the winner and the strongest man.

This winner receives a title declaring him as the strongest man and some kind of prize depending on the village and region. Sometimes this prize is a calf, large supply of rice, or other useful item.

 Talchum (mask dance)

Talchum

Talchum

Talchum is a form of drama featuring the wearing of masks, singing and dancing.

Korean masks can be made from wood, paper gourd or bamboo. The masks used in talchum have distorted, exaggerated and comical facial features which are out of proportion in most cases, for example, eyes larger and more circular than normal ones, long and drooping down nose, excessively lifted mouth, etc.

The features of the mask symbolically represent the social status or condition of the characters.  For example, the servant mask has larger eyes, nose and ears than other masks and these features suggest that the servant must watch and listen carefully the  corrupt and devious schemes of the nobleman, the ruling class.

The nobleman mask usually features an ugly and deformed face which is used to depict the vanity and corruption of the ruling class and express the hostility of the commoners towards the ruling class.

Chuseok Foods

Since Chuseok is a holiday oriented around a great feast, there is also a large selection of unique South Korean food that is eaten. One of the most common holiday foods of Chuseok is songpyeon.

Songpyeon is a sweet rice cake that is enjoyed as a snack or dessert.

Songpyeon

Songpyeon

Songpyeon 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 seeds, beans, red beans, chestnuts, or other nutritious ingredients that vary from region to region.

Is steamed and covered with pine needles for a fresh scent. During Chuseok, South Koreans also enjoy rice liquor with their friends and family.

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.

Other significant Chuseok foods include traditional liquor, Korean pears and jeon (Korean pancakes).

Jeon are made by slicing fish, meat and vegetables and then lightly frying them in a batter of flour and eggs. They make a perfect pair with traditional Soju.

Another Chuseok tradition in modern-day Korea is that of gift-giving.

Koreans will present gifts to not only their relatives, but also to friends and business acquaintances to show their thanks and appreciation. Some customary gift ideas are high-quality cuts of beef, fresh fruit such as apples, and gift sets of everything from traditional Korean snacks to useful items like shampoo.

Hope you had fun reading this article and had a good idea of what Chuseok is and what is the significance and customs of this celebration.

Happy Chuseok!

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