It’s Chuseok time again in Korea and for the next three days the country will be on vacation mode with around 20 million Koreans heading back to their hometowns to be with families or others just staying put. (With the Swine Flu scare, many Koreans are doing just that—staying at home and avoiding crowded buses or trains that they might have taken to get to their hometowns.)
Like Sollal (the Lunar New Year or Chinese New Year), during Chuseok most of the country literally shuts down for one-three days and a million or so Koreans travel home. There will be some places opened today—like shops and restaurants—but tomorrow (Saturday) most everything will be closed even 24-hour convenience stores. Even those convenience stores that are opened will be practically bare because very few deliveries will be made the next three days.
Home plus, a popular hyper market in Korea has been packed with shoppers the past week stocking up for the holiday as well as the food needed for the ancestral worship ceremonies.
On Chuseok, Korean families prepare an enormous spread of food for these ancestral worship ceremonies that include everything from Korean pears and rice cakes to chapjae (a noodle and vegetable dish) as well as Bulgogi, tender, marinated beef. One of the major foods prepared and eaten during the holiday is songpyeon, a crescent-shaped rice cake prepared with rice or non-glutinous rice powder that is filled with sesame seeds, beans, red beans or chestnuts, and steamed upon a bed of pine needles.
On Chuseok morning, families hold memorial services in their homes for their ancestors called Charye. After food has been prepared in front of an altar-like arrangement, sometimes with photos of the deceased, the family bows and then enjoys the food that has been prepared. Some families go to the tomb of their ancestors, a ritual called Seongmyo, and after trimming the plants and grass around the tomb (called Beolcho), they have the ceremony there.
Originally the holiday was called Hangawi, which took place on the 15th day of the eighth month on the lunar calendar to thank their ancestors for the harvest. Although no one is quite sure how Chuseok became the harvest holiday, numerous scholars believe that the celebration of Chuseok may have originated from shamanistic rituals of the harvest moon.
A common misnomer associated with the holiday is that it is a Korean Thanksgiving. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps, given the presence of US military personnel in Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, someone must have started calling Chuseok Korea’s Thanksgiving to explain it to American service members first and later, any foreigner who came to Korea. It is probably better to call it, when asked what the holiday is, a harvest or ancestral holiday.
Having lived in Korea since 1990, I have spent a number of the Chuseok holidays here. I don’t mind staying at home; I have already done enough traveling around Korea and besides, with so many Koreans taking to the highways to travel to their hometowns and most buses and trains already booked up, you can’t really go anywhere anyhow, so one is better off staying close to home.
When I lived in Seoul, Chuseok or Sollal was always a good time to do a bit of sightseeing around the city because, with so many people leaving the city to travel to their hometowns, it was easy to get around the city. In fact, many people—Korean and foreign—look forward to Chuseok and Sollal for that very reason, to be able to get out and do some sightseeing without having to worry about traffic and crowds.
And perhaps for many Koreans and foreigners, once you have had your fill of the Chuseok feast, it is a good time to hunker down and just relax.
This Chuseok will be another quiet and low-key one for me. I might go for a walk and I will definitely be working on my novel. What I am really looking forward to the next three days is for these next three days to pass by quickly because I’m just looking ahead to December 21—that is what I have had my sights on for the past eight-and-a-half months, and every passing day brings me one day closer to Aon, Jeremy Aaron and Bia.