Chuseok (추석) or Hangawi (한가위), a three-day Korean harvest festival celebrated in Korea. It is celebrated on the 15th day of the 9th month of the Lunar Calendar. Chuseok is a festival celebrated with loved ones. People travel back to their ancestral homes to celebrate this festival. A majority of people travel back primarily to Seoul, which causes a massive traffic jam during the three festive days. It is a celebration of a good harvest and a hope that the coming year will be better than the previous.
On this day, people wake up early and perform rituals to worship their immediate ancestors. They visit their tombs to clear out the area and offer food, drinks, and crops, hoping that they are looking over them at all times. South Koreans believe that the harvest crops are credited by their ancestors, hence becoming why they consider autumn as the best season. It is a time when various traditional Korean dishes are made and shared among families. Common dishes and drinks consumed on these days are songpyeon (송편), sindoju (신도주) and dongdongju (동동주).
If you’re planning on visiting Korea, you have to be early with your reservations as everything gets booked three months prior to when the festivities start. This being one of the most important national holidays in Korea, most of the places are closed, including schools, governmental offices, post offices, banks, etc. One of the places that people must visit during Chuseok is the National Folk Museum of Korea, for many festivities are held here for the people.
The most important traditions related to Chuseok are Charye (차례) and seongmyo (성묘). This festival is a way of bringing the families together and enjoying each other’s company while reminiscing through old times.
Charye 차례, 茶禮
Charye is celebrated during Chuseok as an ancestral memorial rite symbolizing the returning of the favors and honoring the past generations. Families perform this rite by holding a memorial service for their ancestors and harvesting, preparing, and offering special food items as an offering. This ritual encapsulates respect for the spirits of the afterlife that now serve to protect their descendants.
The foods offered often vary depending on what’s available but commonly includes freshly harvested rice, fresh meat, rice cakes, fruits, and vegetables. When having Charye there’s a specific table arrangement followed while eating. Traditionally the rice and soup are placed in the north direction while the fruits and vegetables are placed in the south, meat dishes are placed in the west direction along with in the middle, and rice cakes and some drinks like makgeolli and soju are placed in the east direction.
Charye / Jesa Table Setting
The placement of food differs in every region. For example, during the celebration, the amount of fish served in a house in Busan is much more than a house in Seoul. To explain in detail, there are five rows of servings on the table. The first row consists of utensils, cups, and tteokguk (떡국) placed in a line. The food in the second row is placed from west to east starting from Guksu (국수, noodles), Yukjeon (육전, meat pancakes), Sojeon (소전, beef pancakes), Eojeok (어적, fish), and Siluddeok (시루떡, rice cakes).
There are two ways of placing fish and meat on the table. Namely, they are Eodongyuseo (어동유서) and Dongduseomi (동두서미). Eondonggyuseo is when the fish on the east side and meat on the west. Dongduseomi is the placement of fish where its head is oriented in the east and its tail in the west.
The meat soups are placed in the 3rd row and in the 4th Po (포, jerky), Namul (나물, seasoned vegetables), Ganjang (간장, soy sauce), Nabak kimchi (나박김치, kimchi), and Sikhye (식혜, sweet drink). The placement of jerky on the west and sikhye on the east is called as Jwapo oohye (좌포우혜). And last but not least fruits and desserts are placed in the 5th row. All white colored desserts are placed in the west, but there’s a term called Hodongbaekseo (홓동백서) that refers to all the white foods being placed in the east. Jujubes, chestnuts, pears, and dried persimmons are all referred to as Joyoolissi (조율이시).
Seongmyo 성묘;省墓 & Beolcho 벌초; 伐草
There are two more essential worships performed during the Chuseok week. The visit to the gravesites is called seongmyo, and the cleaning of the gravesites by removing weeds and other plants is called beolcho. These are done to remember roots, not forgetting where they came from. Though people live in cities and lead a busy life, they never forget where they came for, where it all started.
Modernization has taken over the world, but Korean people believe that embracing their traditional ways of food is a way of continuing their tradition and, most importantly, respecting and preserving their rich culture. Common food items that one will find in Korean homes are japchae, bulgogi, and a huge variety of Korean cakes and drinks. Though food always is an integral part of all the festivities, the way it is placed or served has meaning too.
Songpyeon 송편, 松餠
Songpyeon is a traditional rice cake that is consumed in large amounts during Chuseok. It has various ingredients in the stuffing, such as sesame seeds, black beans, mung beans, cinnamon, pine nut, walnut, chestnut, jujube, and honey. The word Song in songpyeon stands for pine in Korean, and pyeon stands for the side.
Songpyeon’s shape has a profound meaning, and it leads back to the Three kingdom era of Korea. Its rice skin resembles a full moon, but it resembles a half-moon when the stuffing is inside. The legend of the Three kingdoms states that these two shapes once decided the destiny of the two greatest rival kingdoms Baekje and Silia. The Koreans believe that the half-moon shape indicates victory or good fortune ever since the prophecy came true.
During King Uija of Baekje’s era, A prophecy was found on the back of a turtle, wherein an encrypted message was found that said ‘Baekje is the full moon and Silia is half-moon.’ This phrase meant the rise of Silia and the downfall of Baekje, which eventually came true when Silia defeated Baekje. Since then, families gather together, and each eats a half-moon-shaped Songpyeon under the full moon, hoping for a brighter future.
Hangwa 한과; 韓菓
Hangwa is a traditional Korean food that is made artistically using natural colors and textured patterns. The essential ingredients in the making of hangwa are rice flour, honey, fruits, and roots. Hangwa are made in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. The unique shapes and taste make it all the more appealing to try. It is eaten during Chuseok and on many special occasions such as weddings, social gatherings, birthdays, etc. Yakgwa, yugwa, and dasik are the most commonly consumed types of hangwa. Yakgwa and yugwa are both fried products, where yakgwa is a fried rice dough ball, and yugwa is a fried cookie. Out of both yakgwa has medicinal properties. The most common Hangwa food consumed with tea is dasik.
Baekseju 백세주, 白酒
One of the major alcoholic drinks drunk during Chuseok is baekseju, also called as sindoju (신도주, 新稻酒). Its literal meaning is white liquor and new rice liquor (since it’s made from freshly harvested rice). This is a part of traditional alcoholic drinks, which are believed to increase stamina in men. They say that if you drink the drinks that your ancestors used to, there will be absolutely nothing you’ll be scared of.
Exchanging gifts is a part where you show others how much you mean to them. Since ancient times, this exchange has only enhanced with time. People used to share condiments, sugar, salt, etc., ever since the economy has grown at a steady pace, the gifts have changed. We can see changes happening in each decade. In the 1970s, they had many options to choose from, like cooking oil, toothpaste, coffee sets, cosmetics, etc. In the 1980s, they selected to gift meat, fruits, and cosmetics, while in the 1990s, they chose to give gift vouchers.
Presently in the 21st century, people are giving more urbane gifts. The most expensive gifts can be a kilogram of wild pine mushrooms that cost USD 480.27 (560,000 won). Since these mushrooms cannot be artificially grown, they sum up to be very expensive. Red ginseng products also come under the expensive category as they can cost up to USD 1698.11(1.98 million won).
Many folk games / traditional Korean games are played during Chuseok as a welcome of the season. People even dress up as cows and turtles to go door to door along with a nongak music band. The games vary according to the regions, but a few common games are sserium (Korean wrestling), archery, juldarigi, and tug-of-war.
Sserium has about 5000 years of history. Scholars have evidence that sserium has been in existence ever since the Goguryeo dynasty. It is played between two players where both players hold onto each-others satba, a red and blue band tied across their thigh, and the one whose upper body gets pinned to the floor first loses. The winner is declared as ‘the most powerful, in Korean they are called Cheonha Jangsa, Baekdu Jangsa, or Halla Jangsa. Since the winner is awarded a bull and a kg of rice, this game is not limited to play only during the holidays but any time of the year.
Taekkyon 태껸/ 택견
Taekkyon, a popular game during the Joseon period, is one of the oldest martial arts there are in Korea. Tournaments are held between players from different villages where players try to knock their opponents with kicks, swipes, and pushes. The matches start with children (Aegi Taekkyon) before ending with adults. Though this game disappeared during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945), it is now considered rich in the cultural heritage of Korea (1983) and UNESCO intangible cultural items (2011).
Ganggangsullae is a traditional folk dance performed by women who wear their traditional hanbok and form a circle and sing songs going around the circle.
What is Hanbok?
Hanbok is traditional two-piece clothing with a wrapped front top and a long and high-waisted skirt typically available in all vibrant colors.
Ganggansullae is mostly performed in Jeollanam-do, a province on the southwestern coast. The history of this dance dates back to when Koreans believed that the sun, moon, and the Earth control the universe. They danced under the brightest moon in the hope that it would bring a good harvest. In ancient times, Korea was male-dominated, and women were not allowed to dance or sing loudly. Ganggangsulle was the time where women were allowed to be free and vent by dancing and singing. The performance includes wonmu (spinning clockwise), walking, running, gatekeeper play (two women hold hands making a gate while others pass through it), and stomping roof tile (three women bend while one walks on their backs with the support of more than two women).
Juldarigi or tug-of-war is also a popularly played game during Chuseok. Tug-of-war is a game played worldwide, but in Korea, it has a specific meaning to it. Villagers gather to play and get divided into two teams distributed equally among mean and women. The rope used to play with is divided namely as, female and male forces of the world. If the female forces won, then it is believed that the harvest produced that year would be rich.
Dak Sa Um (닭싸움)
Chicken fight or Dak Sa Um is a game inspired by watching actual chicken fights. People are divided into balanced groups, and the one contender from each team comes forward. They both then have to hold one of their legs bent up and start attacking each other. The person whose leg touches the ground first loses, leaving the other player the winner. Other than winning, this game is about speed, strength, balance, staying alive, and the capability of fighting back.
Hwatu, also known as go-stop or godori, is a card game that includes 12 kinds. The rules of this game are originally from tujeon. While playing this game, the players need to score a minimum of three or seven points. Once they’ve achieved that, they need to call go or stop, which is derived from the game’s name. When a player calls ‘go,’ he risks all his points for the other player if the other player scores the determined number. When the player calls ‘stop’, then the game ends.
Chuseok is a must-visit festival. There’s no place else where you can find such huge variety in literally anything. Each thing leads back to their rich culture and heritage, not only that but their love and respect for their ancestors. Believing that their ancestors are always looking down on them from the afterlife and thanking and celebrating their presence in their hearts is a feeling never felt before. Joy and exhilaration are all around the air, with visions of people smiling and enjoying the time of their lives in these few days along with their families.