I come up slowly after bowing deeply at my family’s burial site. As the blood rushes back down out of my head, I can see that my aunt is already pouring everyone a glass of makgeolli, a fermented rice liquor. It is Chuseok, Korea’s Thanksgiving, and my whole family is gathered at our ancestors’ graves.
“Gumbae!”, we all cheer, and I take a small sip, reserving the rest to ceremoniously “share” with my ancestors by pouring it over the round domed grave sites in front of us. After a moment of silent prayer, my aunt pours another sacrificial glass over her father’s tomb. She then smiles and declares, “Now, it’s time to eat.”
What is Chuseok and when does it happen?
Chuseok, literally translates to “autumn eve” and takes place yearly on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Lunar calendar, proclaiming the harvest moon. It is held around the fall equinox and therefore, also known as the Mid-Autumn festival. On a normal calendar, this date falls usually between September and October, in the middle of the cropping months. Celebrated for three days, this year’s Chuseok will be observed from 20-22 September and is one of Korea’s largest traditional holidays.
What are the origins of Chuseok?
There is some debate around the origins of Chuseok. Some believe it began as a weaving competition dating back to the Silla Kingdom. Teams of silk weavers competed over a month and the losing team had to prepare a grand feast for the winners. Ceremonial dancing and other competitive sports such as wrestling, archery, and martial arts are said to have grown from this celebration. Hence, game playing is a tradition that still lives on today during Chuseok.
Alternatively, some believe that Chuseok’s roots lie in agriculture, and it was a festival created to celebrate the year’s good harvest and to bring good fortune and favour for the upcoming year. Whatever the beginnings, however, the one common theme is that Chuseok is undeniably a time to come together and eat.
What happens on Chuseok?
Nowadays, Chuseok’s focus is primarily around honouring one’s ancestors, and as a result, a mandatory annual pilgrimage home ensues. Over the three-day holiday, families will engage in several traditional activities commemorating their elders. The first day is Charye, a ritual where an array of food is prepared for an offering of respect to your ancestors. Family is very important in Korean culture, and Charye celebrates the notion that our ancestors live through and with the younger present generation continuously.
I have many memories of going back to my grandparent’s grave for Charye as a child, which actually entailed a lot of work! First, we would tidy the land, pulling up the year’s weeds and overgrowth; this custom is called Beolcho. My uncles would have large weed whackers going at high speed to trim the grass down and manicure the area meticulously. Then we would lay out an elaborate picnic; it would vary every year, but large golden round pears, scarlet dried jujube dates, delicate rice flour crackers, savory crispy pancakes, toothsome rice cakes, and makgeolli or soju were usually in the mix. Then we would say a silent prayer of thanks and love and bow deeply numerous times. A ceremonial toast followed and then we would go back home to feast on an elaborate dinner.
What food is traditionally eaten at Chuseok?
There are many different foods prepared for Chuseok, but the one must-have dish is songpyeon, a type of rice cake symbolically shaped to celebrate the new moon and crop. Soaked grains of rice are milled down to a fine flour, then mixed with water to create a dough that is then pounded until sticky and thick. The dough is then shaped into small balls and stuffed with sweet fillings such as sweet red beans, sesame seeds, brown sugar, honey, and chestnuts. These fat parcels are pinched closed like dumplings and shaped into half-moons foreshadowing the brighter full moon to come, and more prosperous times ahead. These cakes are then steamed on a bed of fresh pine needles to prevent them from sticking and to add a gorgeous fresh flavour and aroma. Legend says that women who make pretty and delectable songpyeon have beautiful children and happy marriages.
Every family will cook their own special dishes during Chuseok, but savoury pancakes (jeon) and sweet potato noodles (japchae) are among the most common. My mom used to make delicate egg-covered courgette jeon, prawn japchae noodles and bulgogi grilled beef. These dishes were then set among a wide array of smaller side dishes called banchan creating an elaborate banquet.
Gift giving is a big part of Chuseok as well, with gourmet food items being the most popular. Extravagant hampers full of artisanal traditional or modern foods sell at a premium during this time and stores create specialty gift packages specifically for Chuseok. Silk lined baskets full of ripe rare fruits, ribboned crates full of imported extra virgin olive oil, and even lavishly decorated boxes full of Spam (considered an upmarket item in Korea) are common gifts. My favourite was a luxury box full of hand dried fish and squid meant for snacking. I’d chew on these satiating moreish pieces while we played Hwatu (Korean cards) or Yutnori, a throwing stick game akin to jacks, to end the night.
Chuseok is such a cherished holiday in Korean, and growing up in the USA, I have always found it similar to American Thanksgiving. Both holidays are rather gluttonous – full of delicious food to be share with extended family and boast the sacred custom of giving thanks.
We have so many things to be grateful for this year, and Chuseok reminds us to be humble and have gratitude, all under the new moon and over a plate of songpyeon.
What’s your favourite Korean dish? Leave a comment below…