By Jeff Chung
Korea is now celebrating the equivalent of Thanksgiving.
Chuseok — also known as Harvest Moon Festival, Hangawi or Jungchujeol — is one of the major holidays in Korea. Chuseok falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, which happens to be today.
Chuseok dates back to the Silla era, about 50 B.C. It celebrates the annual reaping of the harvest. Families get together to give thanks to ancestors for another year of good crops.
Traditional games, food and customs are practiced during Chuseok. It's a three-day holiday in South Korea; people are in a mad rush to get to the countryside or to the designated home where the whole family and extended family get together. Families pay respect to their living relatives and also pay respect to the ancestors by visiting graves.
The celebration actually starts well before the holiday. Women are busy making visits to the market, buying food to prepare the traditional feast. Vendors are busy getting gifts for their clients; employees are busy getting gifts for their bosses; families getting gifts for close friends and family. Gifts are usually food items such as fruit, steak or other Chuseok-related edibles.
Women also take out of the storage their favorite hanbok (traditional Korean dress) to wear during the holiday.
The holiday also seems to create a mass traffic jam all over South Korea. People clog all forms of transportation, trying to get to their hometowns. A commute that usually takes four to five hours will take as long as 20 hours, especially if you're going by car.
Traditionally, the paternal family home is where you gather — usually, the home of the first son in the family tree. All members of the extended families will come together as the eldest son presides over the ceremony, called "Charae."
On Chuseok morning, a feast that may have taken several days of preparation will be served. A large table will be set with specific foods, which have a specific meaning. Placement is important. For example, there are usually five rows of food; the table is set so it can only be approached from the south side. On the far end of the table are tablets representing the family ancestors. In the first row are rice, soup, noodles, a glass of Korean wine and rice cake at the northeast end of the table.
In the second row are meats such as beef on the left, and jeon, tofu and fish on the right side. The third row has soups. The fourth row has vegetable side dishes, such as bean sprouts. In the last row are plates with Chinese dates, chestnuts, persimmon, fruit and walnuts.
The family, starting with the eldest son, takes turns approaching the table and bowing in respect and thanks to ancestors. (Note: While Christian families in South Korea don't bow, they will follow other customs as a sign of respect.)
The table is then set for the whole family to enjoy as Chuseok breakfast.
One of the most common food associated with Chuseok is songpyeon, a crescent-shaped rice cake made with newly harvested rice flour that is kneaded into dumplings stuffed with beans or sesame seeds. Songpyeon is cooked with pine needles to keep the rice cakes from sticking to each other, which give off a great scent while cooking.
Traditionally, women in a large circle make songpyeon together, the elder women telling of old times and passing along their skills to the next generations. It's said that a woman who makes a pretty songpyeon will have a beautiful daughter. Nowadays, however, with more women in the work force, songpyeon is purchased at the local grocery store rather than homemade.
After the feast, family members will hold hands in a circle and join in dancing and singing "Kang Kang Suwulreh" under the full moon.
Chuseok highlights the importance of family in Korean society. This holiday is a reminder that families are connected and respect for one another is a bond passed from generation to generation.
It's such an important event that you will often see it in Korean dramas.
That's not all: Korean news anchors will even dress in hanbok on Chuseok.
Jeff Chung is general manager of KBFD, which televises all of the K-dramas. If you have a K-drama question or comment, call KBFD at 521-8066.
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