Chuseok – A Korean Thanksgiving

Today Korea has taken all over the world with its K-drama, K-pop, Kimchi, authentic cuisines, clothes and more. Korean culture is spreading like wildfire everywhere, and one of the most important parts of this culture is Chuseok.

Type of Holiday: Folkloric, Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: Late September-early October; fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month
Where Celebrated: Korea
Symbols and Customs: Charye & Beolcho
Related Holidays: Mid-Autumn Festival

What is Chuseok Festival? 한가위

Chuseok (which literally translates to autumn eve) is one of Korea’s biggest festivals and holidays. It’s referred to as “Korean Thanksgiving”. It is also known as the Mid-autumn Festival or the Harvest Moon Festival. During Chuseok, people celebrate their ancestors, show their gratitude to them, and spend time with their families. Chuseok is a 3-day long celebration that people enjoy with traditional Korean games, vibrant traditions, customs, and a delicious array of dishes.

When is Chuseok

Chuseouk is also popularly known as ‘Hangawi’, which means the middle of autumn according to the Lunar calendar. That is why many know Chuseok as the mid-autumn festival. It is known such because, according to the Lunar Calendar, Chuseok is on the 15th of the eighth month. When we compare the Lunar Calendar to our regular calendar, Chuseok falls in between September & October.
We celebrate Chuseok in Autumn, during the end of September or the start of October. In the year 2020, it was celebrated from 30th September to 2nd October. The actual date keeps on changing from year to year. It is celebrated for three days and is a national holiday. If Chuseok falls on a weekend, the Monday after the festival usually is a holiday too.

Chuseok Dates

202030 September – 2 October
202120 September – 22 September
20229 September – 11 September
202328 September – 30 September
Past and upcoming Chuseok Dates

How did Chuseok start? – Chuseok History

According to many historians, Chuseok dates back nearly two thousand years ago. Silla’s third king, Yuri (24-57), is credited with beginning Chuseok as a competitive festival. Each team was split into groups of women and tasked with weaving silk over the course of a month — beginning on the 16th day of the 7th month and ending on the 14th day of the 8th month. During this period each team weaved as much cloth as they could. The team that made the most cloth was declared the winner and was treated to a great feast of food and alcohol provided by the losing team.

Chuseok Traditions – What happens during Chuseok?

There are lots of traditions that take place during Chuseok. Some of which are fun, and others are profoundly sentimental, and all of them devoted to the family. One of the main Chuseok traditions is for the whole family to move to the most senior family member’s house for the celebration. Therefore, most people in the country go back to their grandparents during this fest.

Charye - 차례

Charye – 차례

It translates to ‘Memorial or Ancestors’, and it takes place on the first day of the festival. Just like the name suggests, the family members keep a memorial service for their ancestors. Where all the family members bow down, pay respects to their ancestors and offer their gratitude for the harvest. Charye customs involve the preparation of traditional foods to offer to generations of ancestors.

Beolcho - 벌초

Beolcho – 벌초

Beolcho is a heartfelt custom where the family goes to the ancestors’ graves and clean them by plucking out any weeds and dusting off any dirt that might have been accumulated. If weeds surround the graves, Then it is considered an unlucky sign and also regarded as shame for the descendants

Beolcho takes place a little before the main festival day as it is important for the families that the graves of their ancestors are free of any dirt or debris on Chuseok.

Chuseok Gifts

Exchanging Gifts

While paying homage to the ancestors is the main idea behind Chuseok, giving gifts is a symbol of showing love to the people that are there with us. Many Koreans are strict to the traditions and only celebrate the deceased during this festival while some have taken up to modern ways and brought in the custom of gift giving to celebrate the living ones.

Initially people gifted each other necessities like soaps, condiments, vegetables, fruits, mushrooms and oil. As years passed by people started giving each other cosmetics and hygiene products. Today there are far more options for gifting.

Popular Chuseok gifts are electronics, skincare products and cash. But however, Koreans prefer natural ingredients more and since food is such an integral part of Chuseok, edible gifts are the best kind of gifts. You can choose from fish sets, beef sets, oil sets, tea sets, combo sets and more. The options are endless.

These sets are available in all markets during Chuseok and are very easily available

Chuseok Foods

The modern day Chuseok is celebrated with a variety of foods from everywhere. But there are some traditional dishes that are made in every household during this festival. These food items have been passed down since generations and are an integral part of Chuseok.

Songpeyon - 송편

Songpyeon – 송편

Songpeyon is a type of rice cake made made from the newly harvested crops. Powdered rice is filled with various kinds of beans, sesame seeds and chestnuts. These are then shaped into moons to represent the Lunar moon. Steamed with pine needles, this dish is filled with flavour and it is believed that if the Songpeyon is beautiful and tasty, the household will have beautiful children and successful marriages.

The reason Songpeyon got its shape as it is now is a different story altogether. The Songpeyon is always in the shape of a half moon. According to legend, during the reign of the King Uija (641-660), There was a prophecy that predicted Baekje would fall down from power and Silla would rise to power. A turtle with strange markings on its back was found, It was later desiphered by the wise men of the kingdon that the message on the back of turtle said ‘Baejke is like a full moon and Silla is like a half moon’.

The meaning of the message was that a full moon cannot grow anymore and has to decrease in size every passing day while a half moon has much more potential to grow.

The prophecy came true and Silla defeated Baejke. From there on people of Korea believe that the half moon is a bringer of prosperity. Therefore all Songpeyons are made into shapes of the half moon.

Japche - 잡채

Japche – 잡채

Japache is a simple stir-fried Ramen dish. Ramen is fried in sesame oil, choice of vegetables ( like mushrooms, onions, spinach, carrots ) and meat. This dish might be simple but is very popular in Korea during Chuseok and many varieties of the dish are available during the time.

Some of these varieties include Beef Japche, Mushroom Japche, Fish Japche. These dishes can be easily found in the markets and malls during the festival. While the base ingredient of the dish; Ramen, stays the same, modernization has brought many variations to the traditional recipe and these are enjoyed all over Korea.

Jeon - 전

Jeon – 전

Jeon are basically Korean pancakes made up of fish, eggs, sweet potato, flour and vegetables. Fried in pan with sesame oil and ate during dinnertime. Another one of the simple but extremely popular dish during Chuseok.

Other traditions during Chuseok 

Apart from the sentimental traditions, there are plenty of fun traditions that the Koreans follow during Chuseok. 

Sossaum (Bull Fighting) - 소싸움

Sossaum (Bull Fighting) – 소싸움

One of the popular traditions of Korean Chusok is bullfighting. While a bullfighting competition sounds dangerous, it is nothing like bullfights in other countries. This fight is a competition between the two trainers on who trained their bull better. The bulls will lock heads and head-butt each other till one of them surrenders. 

This takes place in a large stadium that attracts around 5,00,000 or more people to watch. If you are eager to celebrate Chusek the traditional way, grab a seat at the Sossaum stadium. Apart from the live audience, it’s a tradition for the whole family to sit together and watch the fight on TV from their homes. 

Ganggangsullae 강강술래

Ganggangsullae 강강술래

Ganggansullae is a sort of prayer ritual where women dance together in a circle with their hands linked, praying for a good harvest. Its a tradition where they dance and sing in a clockwise motion. As the dance progresses and time passes, the speed of the dance increases. This is a vital custom and is passed down through generations. Since this dance is mostly performed by young and unmarried women, little girls are taught the dance by their family or their school early on. The moves are easy, and the song is repeated after a lead singer. The ritual takes place under the light of a bright full moon and sometimes even goes on till dawn.

Ssireum 씨름

Ssireum 씨름

Another important tradition is a wrestling competition. Men would wrestle each other on a sandy surface and tackle their opponent to the ground to win. The interesting thing about this wrestling is that the two opponents have to wrestle each other by holding on to their opponent’s belt called the ‘Satba’. Satba comes in 2, Red and blue colors. The person who forces the opponent to touch the ground with any part of his body at knee level or higher is considered a winner.

While Ssireum and Sumo wrestling might seem like the same thing, they differ in rules. In Sumo wrestling, one wins by pushing their opponent out of the ring they are playing in. In Ssireum, one wins if any upper body part (above the knee) of their opponent touches the ground. While bulky wrestlers play sumo wrestling, you can find muscular men wrestling it out in Ssireum.  

Everyone gathers around the TV after dinner and watches this sport on Chuseok. The winner of the competition gets Rice and a Bull. 

Foreigners and Chuseok

Chuseok is a completely family-oriented festival; hence Foreigners cannot have much fun or traditional experiences if they don’t already have friends or family in Korea. As everyone is going back to their hometowns, Seoul is mostly closed and empty too. But here are some ways in which a foreigner can have fun on Chusek

Greetings for Chuseok

Learn the Chuseok Greeting. There is no better way of wishing someone than in their language. Using it would also give you a taste of Korean culture. Here’s how you say it .

Have a good Chuseok
Chuseog Jal Bonaeseyo

추석 잘 보내세요!

  • You can try authentic Chuseok foods like Songpeyon, Japche, and more. During this time, you are very likely to find these dishes anywhere. Not only would it raise the spirit of Chuseok in you, but it would also take your taste buds on a ride. 
  • Visit the graveyard and pay your respects to the people who are not there with us. They might not be your family, but praying for someone never goes in vain, and that is the main point of Chuseok. 
  • Grab a seat at the stadium to watch Ssireum or Sossaum live.
  • You can go sightseeing and roam around like a Korean because the roads would be empty for the festival, and you would have more time and space to enjoy Korea. 
  • Cultural sites and villages in Korea host special Chuseok events for guests. You could go there if you want a true Chuseok experience and do not have friends or family in Korea. 

Namsangol Hanok Village is a wonderful place to visit during Chuseok. From traditional Korean houses to ancient rituals, they make the Chuseok experience amazing for Foreigners. One can take part in folk dances, watch music performances and have authentic Chuseok cuisine. 

Another amazing place to visit is the National Museum of Korea. It is the largest museum in Korea. On Chuseok, they hold many traditional events and activities. Visiting the museum during the mid-autumn festival would give you a taste of Korean culture and a vast knowledge of Korean history. 

It doesn’t matter if you are Korean or not. This festival gives out messages of love, respect, and gratitude, and we have a lot to learn from it. Chuseok will give you the utmost happiness and pride for your family. With the tastiest cuisines to mind-blowing games, this is a never-miss-out thing that you should experience at least once in your lifetime.

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