What the Hell is Chuseok (추석) and How Can You Celebrate in Korea?
Typically falling in mid-September, Chuseok (추석) a 3 day holiday in Korea with a focus on paying respects to your elders. It is quite similar to American Thanksgiving and is often defined by the making and eating of special dishes surrounded by family as well as traditional customs and clothing. It typically falls in September or October but like so many other autumn holidays in this part of the world, it’s based on a specific day of the lunar calendar – in this case, Chuseok always falls on the 15th day of the 8th month.
The History of Chuseok
Translated to ‘autumn eve’, Chuseok is meant as a celebration of the autumn harvest and a season of hard work. Traditionally, any crops or food that was harvested during this time would be dedicated to your family with modern traditions borrowing from this idea (though without the manual harvesting).
The history of Chuseok is interesting, it is said to have originated from the third king of Silla, an ancient Korean kingdom. This king decided to hold a month-long weaving competition where the winner would be rewarded with a feast – at the end of the month, the team that had woven the most was treated to a banquet by the losing team. This has since evolved into the more autumn-oriented holiday that Koreans celebrate today.
Modern Day Chuseok Celebrations
While weaving competitions do still exist in some villages (though mostly for fun and historical remembrance), the modern-day Chuseok has evolved a bit but still maintains some must-dos when it comes to food, activities, and games. Above all, it’s punctuated by a family’s trip back to their hometown in order to spend the holiday with their ancestors and extended family, Predictably, this leads to total chaos on the road with much of the country experiencing some form of gridlock as they make their way home.
During the three day festival, there are numerous traditions you can expect to experience:
- Charye: performed on the morning on Chuseok, Charye is when families remember and honor their ancestors. This was traditionally done at their graves but has evolved to be held at a table in the family’s home with pictures of their deceased loved ones placed on top.
- Seongmyo: even though Charye is not held at the gravesites anymore, families still do visit them if possible and remove the weeds, etc – this practice is called Seongmyo.
Food & Drink
- Songpyeon: Songpyeon is a traditional rice cake that is made with various nuts, beans, and honey and shaped like a crescent moon. While the ingredients may vary, it’s very important all Songpyeon be steamed over a bed of pine needles.
- Hangwa: these are sweet rice treats decorated with various colors and patterns and usually made with rice, flour, honey, and fruits.
- Makgeolli: freshly made rice wine that is usually enjoyed during Charye and other periods of remembrance.
- Ganggangsullae: when women hold hands and dance in a circle under a full moon.
- Ssireum: when two men wrestle each other with a contestant losing when their upper body touches the ground.
Gift giving is a huge part of celebrating Chuseok with the focus being on daily necessities and items for the home. Traditionally these primarily included commodities like flour and sugar but have evolved to now include box sets of food, oil, snacks, and treats.
Celebrating Chuseok as an Expat in Korea
I’m not going to lie – finding much of anything to do during Chuseok is going to be difficult. The fact that it’s a national holiday means almost everything is closed and the fact that it’s based around families means it’s difficult to get included in anyone’s celebrations.
There will be the occasional expat hangout that’s open and they might have a meal or party, but most of the expats I knew either left the country or got together and had their own party. If you’re lucky enough to have a significant other they might invite you to their hometown but don’t be offended if they don’t because this holiday is deeply rooted in celebrating with your immediate family.
My Experience with Chuseok
My Chuseok experience was pretty tame when I was teaching in Korea: Seoul pretty much emptied out and a lot of stores and restaurants were closed all weekend. The massive amounts of traffic leading out of town signaled that most Koreans spend Chuseok the same way Americans spend Thanksgiving: with family out of town.
Chuseok fell on a Sunday for me and I was fortunate to get Monday and Tuesday off plus a nice bottle of wine from some of my students’ moms – not bad!