24 September 2007

추석 Korean Thanksgiving (Harvest Moon Festival)

On our belated train ride to Busan aboard the KTX, I came across a delightful article on Chuseok. Originally written in Korean, but translated into English by I&T Service, the article was both informative, and awkwardly wordy. Here are some of my favorite facts and excerpts:

  • As I noted in my previous post, Chuseok is one of the biggest holidays of the year; a time when family members gather in
    "one place to tribute ancestral rites as well as paying a visit to ancerstors' graves, sharing the warm affectionate feelings for the family bond."
    Chuseok falls on the day of the brightest full moon of the year, the 15th of August, according to the lunar calendar. Koreans were very grateful to the moon for bringing light to the dark night, when humans were vulnerable to attacks by wild animals and shady humans (The sun, notably, is still taken for granted, and not recognized with its own national holiday).

  • On the morning of Chuseok, the ancestral rites table is prepared, including songpyun, korean rice cakes. As the article describes,
    "After confessing abstinence from prohibited activities, all family members gather around the table for the partake of sacrificial food and drink, and breakfast begins."
    The rice cakes, songpyun, are traditionally prepared the evening before Chuseok. There's a saying that the prettiness of your rice cakes will determine the attractivness of your spouse. That's such an ingenious ploy! Can you imagine the number of boys and girls, diligently preparing the rice cakes in hopes of finding a spouse that looks like Gong Yoo or Hyori? I'm sure the ancestors are patting themselves on the back for that old wive's tale.

  • Following breakfast, families visit the graves of their ancestors. Traditionally, in August, people cut the grass on graves (this is when folks used to be buried under huge, grassy mounds in the countryside). Consequently,
    "Those graves with uncut grass mean having no descendants, or, even if there are descendants, they lack filial piety and become the subject of mockery."
    Ah, the good ol' days -- when people were mocked for the lack of filial piety.

  • In addition to the ancestral rites, Chuseok festivities celebrate the abundance of the harvest. People celebrate through food, games, songs, and dance. The traditional games include a form of Korean wrestling called ssireum.
    "People thinking they are strong enter Ssireum contest. Surrounded by spectators, they test their strength and sagacity on a grass lawn or the sands. The final winner is called 'jangsa' and receives both cotton cloth, a sack of rice, or a calf as the prize."
    I wonder if they still do this in the country, and what sort of prizes are awarded. Do strapping young men, who "think they are strong" enter the contest, hoping to win a calf, and end up winning an iRiver mp3 player instead?

  • The article goes on to note that
    "Country boys used to make a group raid on a soybean field mischievously. It is a delicacy to eat the beans cut by the stalk after roasting in an open fire fueled by wood."
    Ah, the good ol' days -- when raiding soybean stalks was a young boy's idea of mischief.

  • Another important part of the Chuseok tradition is the rice wine, called Baekju (white wine) or Shindoju ("new wine of vigor"). Apparently,
    "When a few guests are knocked down from drinking excessively, the feast is regarded successful. Thus, wines are absolutely necessary to cater the guests."
    Now you can add Chuseok, along with St. Patrick's Day, to your list of reasons for excessive late night "festivities."

  • Chuseok is often compared to American Thanksgiving, a holiday which began when
    "[Europeans], who settled after a long journey of hardship, wished to express their thanksgiving to God. They ate turkey meat, corn bread, potato, pumpkin pie, etc. Following this tradition, Americans eat turkey during the holidays, causing the sacrifice of over 45 million turkeys all over the USA."
    That last statement was a little judgemental, but I suppose that's how a lot of foreigners view our excessive consumption of those big, ugly birds. Some countries slaughter millions of rice grains; Americans slaughter millions of turkeys. It's the thought that counts, right?

  • I will conclude this lesson on Chuseok with a insightful analysis of the significance of Chuseok:
    "Here is the reason why so many people visit their hometown, disregarding the dreadful traffic jam. It seems that this mentality stems from the customs of the agricultural society of the past and the influence of the Confuscianism culture, which became the foundation for the ancestor worship... Although industrialized society brought about the scattering of the family, Chuseok provides the chance for their reunion. It functions as the center of affirming the cooperation and reconciliation among the family members... Chuseok becomes an intermediary to connect the affectionate feelings of people, who are being forgotten in our daily life."
    Wow. First "sagacity", then "intermediary." This I&T Service does not fool around.

Chuseok is a big deal here. In a working culture, where employees clock in at 8 am and stay until 10 pm, a three day national holiday is not easy to come by. I'm not sure when gifts entered the picture, but Chuseok is also a time for gift giving, similar to the Hallmark version of Christmas in America. I'm not sure about the details, but it seems that folks present their relatives, particularly their parents with gift sets or gift certificates, and employers present their employees with a gift or bonus. I, for example, received a beautiful (and expensive) set of 유통기한 (manju), chestnut filled rice cakes, from my school.

Chuseok is a time to pay reverence to ancestors and appreciate the abundance of the year, so it is especially nice for me to celebrate and learn more about this holiday, right here in the Motherland.

source: Yi, Mee S., ed. "Chuseok." KTX Magazine for Travel Culture & Lifestyle. Sept 2007.


ajak said...

ㅋㅋ 안나 ^^
set of 유통기한...cute...
유통기한 is expiration date.

ur Korean is better ^^

anna said...

"Expiration date" 말을 하지마세요. I'm still giving it out to people. ;)

ajak said...

of course...it is top secret(25 SEP 2007)..ㅋㅋ