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Happy Chuseok! How to Celebrate Korean Thanksgiving Posted by on Sep 27, 2015 in Culture, Holidays, Korean Culture, Uncategorized

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.

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.

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About the Author: Tony Kitchen

Tony is a seasoned traveler who lived in Busan, South Korea from 2008-2012. While living in South Korea, he traveled extensively around Asia. After leaving, he spent 100 days traveling from Russia to Germany and many places in between. Currently, he lives and works in Budapest, Hungary, focusing on South Korean and East Asian business. Tony has an M.A. in International Relations with a specific focus on South Korean-U.S. relations and North Korea.


Comments:

  1. ye0ye0:

    Hi,

    I will be travelling to Seoul on 14th Sept to 21th Sept 2016. I recently know that there will be a major public holiday that falls on the 14th to 16th Sept 2016.
    I would like to know will the following point of interests be open on Chuseok day?

    ^Deoksugung palace
    ^Myeong Dong
    ^Nandamun
    ^Dongdaemun
    ^Gangnum underground shopping mall
    ^Express bus terminal underground
    ^Times Square
    ^Ehwa Woman University shopping street
    ^Hongik University (Hongdae)
    ^Seoul Station – Lotte Mart

    all information provided is greatly appreciated.

    Looking forward to your response.

  2. Tony Kitchen:

    Hello ye0ye0!

    Yes, you are entering Seoul on a very important holiday period, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, the streets and subway crowds will be smaller, the city less hectic. But on the other hand, a lot of restaurants and basically all businesses will be closed. (Also, make sure you take out enough money for these three days, since sometimes the bank ATMs tend to shut down at this time.)

    For Deoksugung palace, as far as I can tell, it is open during these days (only closed on Mondays throughout the year).

    Unfortunately, almost everything in Myeong-dong will be closed during these three days, and the same goes for Dongdaemun, Gangnum underground, and all the other shopping streets and malls. (However, these places should be open the weekend following chuseok. I am fairly confident that you can visit all of these places on the Saturday after chuseok.)

    It might be nice to avoid any buses or the KTX/train services at the beginning or end of these holidays, since they are sold-out or overbooked. In fact, for the buses and trains leaving Seoul, the entire Wednesday to Sunday period will be nearly impossible and chaotic. But all other public transportation in and around the city should be OK, but with reduced schedules. So, double-check the special schedules for night buses and subway liens at the stations.

    Don’t be worried! I have spent a couple chuseok’s in Korea and had a very nice time. Just hunt down some restaurants, cafes, bars, or clubs and enjoy yourself, and use this time to do some walking around the city, hiking, and to go to a “jjimjillbong”, a.k.a. a Korean bath. You will miss a few days of the “commercial” Korea, but you will get a much better feeling of what Korea is like without being caught up in the fast-moving Seoul rush hour. Who knows: a Korean family might take you in for an amazing meal and experience! In that case, and this is strange, they tend to shower you with gift sets of spam or toiletries.

    Please don’t hesitate to drop me a line (tonyjkitchen@gmail.com) if you need more help.

    Keep us updated on your adventures with more comments, and let us know how it turns out!

  3. Vic:

    Hi there, my family and I will be heading over to Busan during Chuseok. Will the KTX train be crowded if it is taken from Incheon Airport? Will the temple and parks be opened during that festival?Thanks!