Have fun on your Chuseok holidays! (여러분 모두 즐거운 추석 연휴 보내세요!) Today (Sept. 27) is the iconic Korean holiday of Chuseok (추석), which means Korean Thanksgiving Day. Each year, the holiday falls on a different day based on the Lunar Calendar. The holiday celebration is actually three days long, which means yesterday and tomorrow are the bookends of Chuseok in 2015. Korean families travel to their ancestral homes outside of the major cities like Seoul and Busan, creating massive traffic jams and tripling travel times.
Songpyeon, a traditional Korean rice cake, is a central part of the Chuseok celebration. The photo says, “Joyful Thanksgiving.” (Photo courtesy of Travel Orientate Flicker.)
Unfortunately for Korean workers this year, it might mean only one day off. (More on that later this week.) But Chuseok is family time with family and for honoring their elders, often putting out everything from massive fruit displays to a full pig’s head in order to honor the spirits of their deceased ancestors who travel back home. Chuseok itself is a fall harvest celebration, and the women of the family have a marathon session all week of preparing everything from rice and fruit to deep-fried breaded vegetables, Korean pancakes, and fish–or assorted jeon (전).
But the one snack on every Korean table today is songpyeon (송편). Songpyeon is a Korean rice cake made from grounded glutinous–or sticky–rice. The dough is made into small half-moon like shapes, and filled with mushed up red beans, sesame seeds, and sometimes chestnuts. This practice is a major bonding time between mothers and their daughters.
In large gatherings, Koreans, who sometimes wear the traditional hankbok garments (particularly younger members to show respect to the elders), bow three times from a standing to a kneeling position in front of the table of food. Koreans also pour alcohol like soju (소주) or makgeolli (막걸리) as an offering (but also plenty for themselves).
For anyone who has lived and worked in Korea, Chuseok is also a time for the (sometimes awkward) gift-giving. Small stores and large supermarket chains sell dozens to hundreds of gift sets leading up to Chuseok. The awkward part is what is inside. You can get loads of fruit or Korean snacks. But you will probably get a very large set of spam or shampoo or toothpaste.
Yesterday, my neighbor, who is from Yemen, here in Hungary, where I live, told me that now is the big holiday in China. China celebrates a similar festival at this time, but their mid-Autumn harvest festival is actually on August 15, which the Koreans recognize as hangwei (한가위), which is the old word for Chuseok and still can refer to today’s holiday and rarely to August 15. It is a shame that Korea, with all of its global soft power and international outreach, can be overshadowed on Chuseok, one of the most important days of the year in Korean culture.
If you plan to travel to Korea, I wouldn’t necessarily plan to travel to “see” Chuseok, since it is typically a family day and most businesses are closed. But if you are lucky enough to have friends there, you will probably be invited, and leave with enough spam and shampoo to last you until Chuseok 2016.