추석 (Chuseok) is one of the biggest national holidays in Korea along with 설날 (Lunar New Year) and 단오/ 수릿날 (Spring festival). It is often referred to as the Korean Thanksgiving, and it is during this 3-day holiday where Koreans travel back to their 고향 (hometown) to celebrate together, share stories and 맛있는 음식 (delicious food), and most importantly, to give thanks to their 조상 (ancestors).
The 3-day 추석 holiday will be observed September 11-13 this year, with the actual 추석 day falling on September 12. Although Korea officially follows the Gregorian calendar, the date of 추석 is based on the 음력(lunar calendar), a calendar based on the cycles of the lunar phase. On this calendar, 추석 is always on the 15th day of the 8th month; however, when placed on the Gregorian calendar, the date of 추석 will be different every year. For example, next year in 2012, 추석 is September 31, which means the 3-day holiday will be September 30-October 1.
A little bit of history…
추석 was originally known as 한가위 (Hangawi) and still sometimes referred to as such. Although the exact origin of 추석 is unknown, popular belief and history will tell us that 추석 originated from a month-long weaving competition between two teams during the reign of the third king (태종 무열왕) of the Silla Kingdom. The team that wove the most cloth won, and the winning team would be treated to a big feast by the losing team.
However, some scholars believe 추석 stems from the shamanistic practice of worshipping/celebrating and giving thanks to the harvest moon and ancestors. Farmers harvested their crops during this time of year, and after their 추수 (harvest), they would give thanks to their ancestors in a ritual of worship/thanks called 차례. By presenting their ancestors in the sky with a table of items from the new harvest, the farmers paid homage to their gracious ancestors that they believe gave them a bountiful harvest so they could spend the winter months warmly and with plenty of food. They would then share their bounty and products of the first harvest with family, friends, and neighbors.
The celebration continued under the bright light of the 달 (moon) with a performance of the 강강수월래, or “circle dance”, which incorporates singing, dancing, and playing instruments exclusively by the maidens of the town dressed in their most special 한복. During the day, there was also a 씨름 (Korean wrestling) competition to see who was the town’s strongest man. You can still witness these traditions during present-day 추석 celebrations as well as a variety of other folk games.
Nowadays, there’s always a mass exodus of Koreans leaving their current place of residence and returning to their hometown or village to join their family and to pay their respects. Highways are packed, cross-country bus and train stations are chaotic, and tickets for said buses and trains are absolutely, positively 매진 (sold out).
If you plan to travel anywhere in, out of, or around Korea during the days of 추석, it’s a good idea to book your tickets WAY in advance. If this type of traveling chaos makes you uneasy, it might be best to just stay where you are and hide under a blanket until 추석 is over. Another option is, of course, to just stay where you are and enjoy the crowd-less streets and festivities in town ^_^
On the eve of 추석, it is common for families to gather together to make one of the representative foods of the holiday, 송편 (Songpyeon). These half moon-shaped rice cakes are filled with various things like sweet red beans, chestnuts, sesame seeds…etc. The making of 송편brings everyone together to re-connect with each other and live happily in the moment.
Koreans wake up in the wee hours of the morning on the day of 추석 to perform 차례. This ceremony is not all that dissimilar from the ritual performed in days past. By dressing in traditional 한복 and setting a table with an abundance of foods, with the star of the table usually being freshly harvested rice, the family gives thanks to their ancestors. They then sit down at the table to enjoy the meal that is representative of their blessings from their ancestors.
During 추석, the family will 성묘. 성묘 is a noun that literally translates to “visit the tomb/graves of one’s ancestors”. When the family visits the grave site, they remove the weeds and trim plants that have grown around the grave during the summer as well as offer food and drink to their ancestors. This practice is called 벌초 (Beolcho) and is considered an expression of filial piety.
Tips for surviving 추석 if you’re a 외국인:
* Double check the operating hours of the stores and restaurants you may possibly want to visit during the holiday. They may or may not be open!
* Find places to go to that are easily accessible by subway to avoid the holiday traffic. Subway stations will be virtually EMPTY and you will be able to grab a seat anywhere you want to.
* For the few days right before 추석, do not visit E-mart, Home Plus, or any grocery-like store for that matter, unless you are an adventure-seeker and enjoy being trampled by 아줌마들 (ajummas).
* The palaces in Seoul, Korean Folk Village, and 남산골 (Namsangol) village have various 추석 activities, and some museums may have 추석 attractions as well!
* If you want to avoid Korea altogether during 추석, you can book a ticket well in advance (a little late to try to get one now, though…) to get out of the country and go sight-seeing somewhere else for 3 days
추석 is a very special time for Korea, and if you are given the chance to experience any of the festivities or rituals, do not pass up the opportunity to engulf yourself in traditional Korean culture.
Written by: Stephanie Morris
Photography by: Hyunwoo Sun