Chuseok, Korea’s national holiday, celebrates the harvest and is one of the most important festivals of the year. Held around the autumn equinox, Chuseok is a traditional holiday that started before Korea was divided. However, like other practices in the country, Chuseok, too, is celebrated differently by North and South Korea. From the duration of the festival to the ceremonies to the food, multiple variations can be observed during this holiday.
While it was widely celebrated in the South, North Korea did not celebrate the festival until it was revived in 1988. Prior to that, in the North, it was considered a breach of the manners of socialism. For North Koreans, the biggest national holidays are still the birthday of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, on 15th April, and the birthday of his son, Kim Jong-il, on 16th February.
A major difference in the way the festival is celebrated is that in South Korea it is a three-day holiday, while in the North, it is only a one-day affair. During Chuseok, South Koreans generally take a break from work and spend this holiday with a large gathering of family members, but most North Koreans have smaller get-togethers. In the North, given the restrictions on their movement, relatives also live closer to each other. The North Koreans, like their Southern counterparts, do still follow the ritual of visiting their ancestors’ graves, although this, too, is tougher for those who do not have their own transport or come from lower classes. In such a scenario, they mostly walk from place to place, be it to the marketplace or to visit their family graves to fulfil their Chuseok traditions. Many North Korean residents are also unable to really make the most of the occasion due to food shortages or lack of money. The middle and elite classes, on the other hand, enjoy the day as they would like to.
Another sensitive matter during this time is the fact that many families are divided between the North and South, making it impossible to meet. In June 2000, 100 families were allowed to meet each other, however, over the years, these numbers have dwindled, and many people still stay separated from their loved ones.
During Chuseok, Koreans set up what is known as the Charye table or the ancestral rites table. It blends two important elements of Korean Culture – Ancestral Worship and food. The food is set on a table before an altar to the family’s ancestors. Each item is chosen very carefully by the family and is defined by the city and tradition. Koreans believe that the more effort put into setting the table the more respect you are paying your ancestors.
In the South, the table is set up following customary practices, including directions indicating which part of the table the food should be placed on. North Koreans, on the other hand, prepare food their ancestors were fond of. In the South, the Charye table may consist of up to 30 dishes varying from vegetables to meats, while in the North, it may be limited to fish and fruits. Candy and rare biscuits are considered a luxury in the North and also make it to the Charye table. As it is colder in the North, food is prepared in advance and stored, and the food is consumed over a longer period. People in the North do not peel the fruits since they also feel that their ancestors may think that the fruits are not fresh.
South and North Korea may also use different ingredients for the same Chuseok dishes. South Koreans prepare radish soup with beef, while in the North since beef is rare, pork is used instead. Up North, beef and pork, which are received as rations from spring to fall, are boiled and preserved in salt. On Chuseok, it is cut and used to make soup. Grilled meat is also made with beef in the South, but pork in the North. Popular dishes on the Charye table in the South are meatballs and pan-fried fish fillets but are very rarely found in the North. North Koreans clean rare fish like Plaice (Flatfish) and Atka Mackerel and serve them whole on the ritual table.
No Charye table is complete without the famous rice cake – Songpyeon. Dating back to the Goryeo period, it is a must-have delicacy during Chuseok. There is even a belief that the person who makes the prettiest or most beautiful Songpyeon will meet a good spouse or have a beautiful baby. Songpyeon, too, is prepared differently in these two regions. In the North, the cake is much bigger, and beans and radish are used as fillings in the rice cake. In the South, fillings vary from pumpkin to potato, acorn, or sweetened peas. Nowadays, there are a variety of recipes available to prepare the dish in assorted ways.
Both Koreas also make Jeon or vegetable pancakes, which are eaten as a side dish during meals. However, this dish is much tougher to prepare in the North. North Koreans use onions, instead of expensive cooking oil, to fry the same. Other pancakes served at the North Korean table are also prepared with sorghum and red beans, instead of fish fillet. Sometimes, six or seven boiled eggs are laid on the table in the North.
In terms of beliefs and practices, in the South, people thank their ancestors by bowing while kneeling on the floor, but in the North, simple prayers are said as a part of the ritual.
Despite all the differences, the Koreans in both regions still share several similarities and resemblances like participating in traditional games and other festivities during this holiday. While the size of the gathering may be different, families in both regions look forward to spending time together and sharing old stories over a meal. Chuseok is a reminder that families are connected, no matter which part of Korea you hail from.