ALTHOUGH CHU-SEOK is commonly known as the “Korean Thanksgiving,” it entails more than exchanging appreciations to one another and breaking the turkey wishbone. Instead, Chu-seok holds its originality with a unique history, staple Korean cuisine, and traditional customs. This article will give you a handy, introductory guide to the Korean culture of Chu-seok.
The first Chu-seok: how did it start?
The first historical reference of Chu-seok was made in a chronicle called Sam guk sa gi* where we can find a description of a unique contest that took place during the Sil-la dynasty. During the rule of King Yu-ri, the six towns in Korea were divided in half, and the women of each group were assigned to serve one of the King’s two princesses for a weaving competition. The race started in early July and ended on Aug. 15 in the lunar calendar, during which period the team members wove for the entire day. On the last day of the competition, the King examined the works of each team and announced the winner. The losing team was to prepare a feast for the victor: this practice turned into a holiday that offered entertaining games and dancing that everyone enjoyed. Such tradition was developed into an annual festival called ga-bae in the Sil-la dynasty, and since then it still continues to be celebrated as one of the principal holidays in Korea, Chu-seok.
The symbolism of the full moon
Koreans revered the moon and depended on it not only to record the passing of the time but also to guarantee safety. In particular, the full moon was a precious source of light that brightened up the dark nights that were seen to be full of danger. People thus placed more significance on the 15th day of August on the lunar calendar, the night on which the moon is the brightest. In celebration of the fullest moon of the year, people developed many traditional dances and stories related to its existence. Gang gang sul lae, a dance in which women skip in a large circle under the moon and pray for a successful harvest, is one of the examples that shows how Koreans in the past regarded the moon as a source of safety and mystical powers.
Han-ga-wi, another name for Chu-seok, also reflects the importance of the moon as the word itself means the “big full moon.” Looking up to the brightest moon of the year, Koreans continue to celebrate Chu-seok with their close family members and traditional food in their ancestral homes**. Although our reliance on the moon has diminished as artificial lights have now replaced the need for it, the full moon in the Korean society remains as a nostalgic symbol of family and home in this fast-paced world. The three-day long holiday with our loved ones and a scrumptious meal gives us a relaxing break in the middle of the year.
In celebration of the harvest in September and for the gathering of families in their hometowns, Koreans uphold conventional customs, feast on holiday treats, and play traditional games that have developed throughout Chu-seok’s long history. Here are some examples of such customs:
1. Paying respect to our ancestors: beol-cho and seong-myo
In the past, Koreans buried their ancestors at a distant but propitious site according to geomancy or moved away after burying them in their original hometown. However, visiting the ancestors’ tombs and paying respect to them with food and alcohol were considered as the rightful duties of the younger generation. It has thus become a tradition for Koreans to visit their ancestors’ graveyards every Chu-seok, a custom that was later named as seong-myo. Apart from bowing to the deceased and leaving food in front of their graves, people also practice beol-cho, a custom of cleaning up around the grave by weeding. Such observances demonstrate Koreans’ deeply engraved belief in Confucianism, which emphasizes the descendants’ duty to thank their ancestors for their wisdom.
2. Eating song-pyeon under the bright full moon
Chu-seok is a timely event to prepare a bountiful feast as the recent harvest provides us with more than enough crops and fruits. Song-pyeon, a half moon-shaped rice cake with red bean, chestnut, and jujube paste inside, is the most typical dish of Chu-seok. Only freshly harvested ingredients are used as family members sit tight around a table at night to make song-pyeons.
Ironically, a song-pyeon is shaped like a half moon, instead of the full moon. There is an interesting history behind its shape that originates from the period of the Three States in Korea—Sil-la, Baek-jae, and Go-gu-ryeo. One night, King Eui-ja of the Baek-jae dynasty found a turtle with the phrase, “Baek-jae is the full moon and Sil-la is the half moon***,” on its carapace. A fortuneteller explained to the King that it meant Baek-jae will gradually decline from its full state, while Sil-la will grow from its half state. People in the Sil-la dynasty heard this news and started to make rice cakes in a half moon shape to wish for the dynasty’s prosperity.
The tale reminds us that the moon was an important symbol in prophecy and fortunetelling in the past. There are also some superstitious beliefs related to the food, as it is commonly said that those who make appetizing song-pyeons can meet good-looking partners and have adorable children in the future. Others also predicted the gender of the baby they were expecting by sticking a pine needle through the song-pyeon. The gender of the baby was determined depending on which end of the pine needle the mother bit on first.
3. Wishing for a good harvest through so-no-ri
So-no-ri, directly translated as the “ox game,” is one of the traditional games played in Chu-seok. As its name suggests, the aim of the game is to recognize the ox’s essential role and efforts in bringing about a good harvest. Although machines have now replaced them, oxen in the past were the main source of energy in plowing the fields and harvesting. Two farmers imitate an ox by placing a straw mat on themselves and holding sticks to represent the horns and the tail. A band consisting of farmers follows the two, making visits to houses in the town and wishing for their well-being and asking for food in return. House owners provide the farmers with typical Chu-seok food and drinks, and the group continues its round until the sun sets down. In some regions like Gyeonggi-do and Gangwon-do, people imitate a turtle**** instead of an ox and hold similar celebration of Chu-seok.
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Apart from the aforementioned customs, there are more diverse types of activities and traditions associated with Chu-seok. How about eating song-pyeon and trying out gang gang sul lae for this year’s “Korean Thanksgiving”? I guarantee you that it will be an unforgettable experience, celebrating and immersing yourself in Chu-seok the way Koreans have been for hundreds of years!
*Sam guk sa gi: Translated as The Chronicles of the Three States, the book was written by a historian in the Go-ryeo dynasty in the 12th century. It includes the Korean history from the three states—Sil-la, Baek-jae, and Go-gu-ryeo—until the establishment of Go-ryeo.
**Since most families in Korea are nuclear families and live in large cities away from their original homes, people set off on a long trip to visit their families and ancestors every Chu-seok. This explains the chaotic traffic jam during the holidays.
***Korean original statement: “백제는 만월이요, 신라는 반달이다.”
****Turtles were often associated with longevity and good health, as well as magical powers to repel evil spirits from the village.