Chuseok (or “autumn eve” in English), one of Korea’s most festive holidays, is observed alongside China’s mid-autumn festival, Zhongqiujie. How does one celebrate Chuseok this mid-autumn week?
Chuseok officially takes place on September 10, 2022, but South Korea celebrates this holiday for 3 days, from September 9 to 11. Like China’s mid-autumn festival, Chuseok is centered on family reunions and giving thanks through food offerings and prayers under the autumn moon. But what makes Chuseok so different and how can we celebrate the mid-autumn festival South Korean-style?
The Origin Story
Like many early civilizations, ancient Koreans relied on agriculture, hunting, and gathering to survive. It is during the autumn solstice that labor cools and crops are harvested in abundance. Koreans naturally rejoiced in the harvest season; in the Kingdom of Silla, the king served as a judge in a hemp-weaving contest between two teams. The contest concluded after a whole month, on the 15th day of the 8th month. The losing team’s punishment was to prepare a hearty feast and entertain the winning team. Other games such as archery, dance, and martial arts were also practiced in the festivities.
The tradition of hemp weaving and competitive games survived and are still practiced in modern Korea.
In light of the harvest season, South Koreans often buy food-based gifts to offer to their family, friends, and ancestors. Popular gift choices are spam, beef cuts, songpyeon, rice liquor, seasonal fruits like pear and apples, honeyed snacks called hangwa, and red ginseng. Like Chinese families, Koreans also give cash as gifts to their family members.
Family Reunions and Thanksgiving Food
Mooncakes are not exclusive delicacies of China. In fact, Koreans have their own version of the mooncake dish called the Songpyeon. It is a type of colorful sticky rice cake stuffed with a sweet filling of soybeans, dates, red beans, honey, or sesame seeds. Its shape is meant to imitate the crescent moon. Songpyeon is steamed with pine needles that give them a distinctive fragrance.
The harvest season is also a time for family reunions. In South Korea, most families make use of the 3-day holiday to visit their elders in the province or go to vacation spots, often resulting in road congestion. As a family, they gather and eat traditional food like Pajeon (scallion pancake), Wanjajeon (battered meat patties), Galbijjim (braised ribs), Japchae (vegetable-mixed glass noodles), and Songpyeon.
Beolcho or Ancestral Grave Maintenance
Honoring ancestors is a key practice in today’s Chuseok. This takes place prior to the 3-day holiday. Other than praying and setting an offering table for their ancestors, Korean families also practice Beolcho or cleaning their ancestors’ graves by cutting trees and clearing weeds and overgrown grass. This is often seen as the duty of the younger generation to their parents.