With fall comes Chuseok 추석, the Korean harvest festival! Also known as Hangawi 한가위, it is one of the most important holidays in Korea. Following the lunar calendar it falls on the 15th day of the 8th month, close to the Autumn Equinox, and is celebrated over 3 days. This year Chuseok goes from September 11-13, giving a long week-end to families to get together.
Often compared to the American Thanks Giving, Chuseok is a family gathering to pay respects to ancestors and share a traditional feast. There is an incredible pilgrimage from Seoul to hometowns, with up to 75% of the population on the roads. Families go back to their roots to spend time with their grandparents and perform rites honoring deceased relatives.
During Chuseok food plays a central part from the meal prepared by the women of the family to the different dishes presented to ancestors during rites. Songpyeon 송편, a crescent shaped rice cake steamed on pine needles, is one of the most important delicacies families enjoy eating together. There is a folk saying that the single people making the nicest Songpyeon will find a handsome spouse, while those already married will have good-looking children.
Chuseok is also the occasion to exchange gifts with relatives, friends and acquaintances to express gratitude and appreciation. These gifts are very different from what people typically give in Western countries as Koreans like to give every-day necessities and luxurious foods. Special Chuseok gift sets available at supermarkets usually include beef cuts, beautiful fruits, fish products, rice cakes or daily products like shampoo and soap.
Habitually, gourmet honey or a fish called gulbi 굴비 are given to older people, while dried persimmon 감 and fruits are for people your age or colleagues. The most surprising to Western eyes are the Spam gift sets, which are prominently displayed in the shops. The shops are full of customers running around with their gifts wrapped in colorful fabrics.
In modern day Korea a new phenomenon has appeared: the Chuseok Syndrome. Affecting Korea wives because of all the stress accumulated during the holiday from hours of preparation, cooking and working in the homes of their in-laws… Physical and psychological symptoms can accompany the holiday.
More families are now finding new ways to enjoy Chuseok with simplified traditions or by ordering meals, while some Christian families also choose not to perform ancestral rites. Koreans usually have very little summer vacation, so Chuseok is also becoming a popular time to go on a getaway or even plan cosmetic procedures. Only 10 years ago it would have been inconceivable, which reflects how Korea is becoming more liberal and how traditions are becoming less important.
Don’t forget to eat some delicious rice cakes with some rice liquor and to wish Chuseok poneseoyo 추석 잘 보내세요 to your Korean friends!