Korean is not the easiest language to master, but during Chuseok you only need to remember a few simple words: songpyeon, charye and beolcho. All right, simple might have been stretching it, but these three little phrases form the foundation of Korea’s centuries old harvest festival: Chuseok.
Falling on the same date as the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, Chuseok is a big deal; hands down the most celebrated holiday on Korea’s calendar. For outsiders, it’s sometimes difficult to grasp the significance of this three-day event, as it is extremely family-oriented. If you have an in with a kind Korean family, this would be a great opportunity for an in depth look at Confucianism in action. If you’re not so lucky, don’t worry. Korea would love to teach you all about its most important holiday.
Often likened to an American Thanksgiving, Chuseok is a time to gather with family, celebrate the harvest, eat enormous amounts of food, tell stories, honor ancestors and generally give thanks. Though it changes yearly with the lunar cycle, Chuseok 2012 will begin September 30 and continue until October 2.
During this period, Koreans flock to their family and ancestral homes in the countryside, clogging the motorways and closing many shops and businesses for the duration. However, for tourists looking to visit Korea’s major cities, Chuseok is a perfect opportunity to explore in relative peace.
Remember those three little words? Each signifies a pillar of the Chuseok holiday. On the first morning of Chuseok, families gather to prepare songpyeon, a traditional sweet rice cake. Songpyeon are both enjoyed by the living and used to honor the dead. Filled with nuts, honey, sesame, red beans and other sweet treats, songpyeon are perhaps the most visible symbol of Chuseok. They are also a crucial aspect of the charye, the traditional ancestor memorial service.
During charye, food and drink are offered to ancestors, while families enjoy songpyeon, freshly harvested rice and a host of other traditional foods. After the goods are symbolically shared with the dead and a small service is conducted, everyone sits down to enjoy their fall feast.
After the ornate, gut-busting meal, the family travels to their ancestral burial mound to take part in beolcho, which is really just a nice word for weeding. After the burial mound is primped and pruned families will spend hours laughing, talking, eating, enjoying the countryside, and remembering their dead. Any foreigner should count themselves extremely lucky to take part in this intimate celebration.
As the evening comes to a close, families enjoy the bright, full harvest moon and often play traditional games such as the Korean circle dance ganggangsullae – which you definitely do not have to remember. Although ssireum, traditional Korean wrestling, was once integral to the Chuseok celebration with contests held in every village, it has declined in popularity.
All of this may sound lovely, but sadly few non-Koreans will ever get to experience the full Chuseok ceremony. However, that doesn’t mean you can get in on the celebration. Korean folk villages and palaces are a perfect place for a little Chuseok 101.
Several weeks before Chuseok, all the major palaces and folk villages in Seoul offer various traditional games, programs and cultural performances. Some palaces will even offer free admission to any tourist who turns up in hanbok. Visitors can also expect special Chuseok additions to the standard attraction lineup such as tight rope walking, horseback martial arts, North Korean Folk performances and various ritual reenactments. If you’re lucky you can even get in on some songpyeon making.
No matter your heritage, have a happy Chuseok.