Chuseok Then and Now

by M.L. Lee, 28/09/2020

Foreign nationals visiting or living in Korea can take advantage of the wide range of opportunities to partake in many of the  customs traditionally associated with Chuseok, Korea’s harvest festival. Often referred to as Korean ‘Thanksgiving’ to give foreigners a reference point as it has traditionally been a harvest celebration, Chuseok continues to be one of Korea’s major holidays. 

In the past, it was a time for families to get together and pay respect to elders and ancestors*. The day before and the day after were statutory holidays* to allow time to get back to hometowns. Women spent a lot of time and energy cooking special rite foods as well as meals for all the visiting relatives. Much of these responsibilities fell on the wife of the eldest son while he, as the head of the family, had major duties to perform.  Traditional chuseok foods include songpyeon (half-moon rice cakes – tteok- with beans, sesame, chestnuts, honey or other sweet fillings and steamed on layers of pine needles.
*The holiday period runs from Wednesday 30 September - Friday 02 October. 

*Due to the pandemic, while visiting an ancestral grave is one of the most common traditions of Chuseok among Koreans, numerous memorial parks across the country have closed their gates during the holiday period to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Beyond paying respect to one's family, Chuseok was a time to catch up on family news and to have fun after the hard harvest work. Traditional activities included bullfights, tug-of-war competitions among neighbours or between villages, weaving, viewing the full moon and attending a ganggangsullae (circle dance).  Villagers also enjoyed traditional farmers' music or traditional wrestling (ssireum) matches, on grassy grounds or sandpits with the winner being awarded a practical prize such as a large bag of rice or bolt of cotton or even a calf.

Chuseok also involved gift giving, not only among family members but also to nurture business and social relationships. Gift sets, often of food products but also of aesthetic and other products, go on offer weeks before the holidays, in the whole range of prices. Chuseok has also been a period when families clean and beautify their family burial sites. For some, this was done during the holiday, while others took care of this loving obligation a weekend of two earlier.

While gift sets are still on offer everywhere, from convenience stores to department stores to luxury hotels and while many families still pay a visit to their family graves at this time of year, many Chuseok rituals and traditions are evolving. Anti-graft regulations that came into force in 2016 put a cap on the value of gifts given to government officials, teachers, and other public sector employees. Environmental protection inspired regulations have also been introduced in the last few years. For example, gift products (cans, fruit, beauty products, household items) should fill at least 75 percent of a gift box. 

One of the big breaks from tradition involves travel. Increasingly, Koreans are taking advantage of the shutdown of their workplace to take a vacation abroad or somewhere relaxing in Korea, instead of gathering in their ancestral hometowns.  And among the families who go to cemeteries or ancestral burial sites, an increasing number are paying their respects at crematoriums or to burial sites closer to the cities in which they live. Even with that, rail tickets sell out and getting a seat on a bus or plane from Seoul may not be possible until after the holiday.

Despite the changes in Korean society regarding Chuseok traditions, a great many people still travel to their ‘hometown’ over the holiday so one can expect heavy traffic especially on the first and last days of the holiday While it normally takes about 4-5 hours to get from Seoul to Busan by car for example, during Chuseok, the drive could take double that time. Moreover, rail tickets sell out days, even weeks, before the holiday and getting a seat on a bus or plane from the big urban centers during this period may not be possible.

For those who do get together with family, women can order or buy traditional Chuseok foods rather than toiling for hours in the kitchen. Children may give health or beauty enhancement gifts to their parent while fewer families are participating in ancestral memorial rites.  Increasingly, according to media reports, cosmetic surgery clinics are staying open over the holiday to accommodate both people from every generation wanting to take advantage of the holiday period to have enhancing work done.

Due to the recent increase in COVID-19 cases, the government, at all levels, has been encouraging people to stay home and not travel over the Chuseok Holiday, even though with the weekend, it is a 5-day holiday. While some are going ahead and travelling, many are connecting with family and performing traditional rituals virutally through various live chat platforms.

That said, foreign residents and visitors, as well as Koreans, who want to know more about, or even experience, traditional Chuseok foods and activities, can do so through special events organised by museums, palaces and other venues.  Also, while almost everything used to shut down over the holiday, or at least on Chuseok Day itself, most tourist sites are open and an increasing number of shopping and entertainment venues will be open over most, and sometimes, all of this year’s Chuseok period. 

To find out some of the events/activities available over the holiday period, visit our What’s Going On section – especially, but not limited to, the About Korea section. Many palaces and museums offer free admission to people - Korean or foreign - wearing a hanbok. Many museums re-opened following the COVID-19 closure on Monday 28 September 2020. Note that advanced reservations are required and only a limited number of people will be accepted in the museum at a time. Masks are required.

The K4E Team wishes you a Happy Chuseok. Please stay safe and stay well.

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