When is Chuseok & How Do You Celebrate?

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Chuseok, or the Harvest Moon Festival, is the biggest and most important holiday in Korea. People often think of Chuseok as the Korean version of Thanksgiving, and it’s true that the festival has many similarities to our American autumn holiday. But Chuseok is also unique and different from our western traditions in many ways. 

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The Korean holiday of Chuseok is a time for family members to gather from far and wide. Together, they share food and stories, and they show gratitude to the ancestors for an abundant autumn harvest. 

Keep reading to learn even more about the unique Harvest Moon Festival, and what you’d experience if you joined in the celebration. 

What’s Chuseok?

Chuseok might resemble the American holiday of Thanksgiving in many ways, but its central purpose is slightly different. The key point of Chuseok is to show gratitude to all of one’s ancestors for a plentiful fall harvest. And while we give thanks in America on Thanksgiving, we don’t often direct our thanks to relatives who have passed away. 

In South Korea, Chuseok is a public holiday. Schools close, and most workers have at least the primary day off. Most Koreans return to their ancestral homes to celebrate the holiday, even if they’ve since moved far away. 

The two main traditions associated with Chuseok are Charye (showing gratitude to the ancestors at home) and Seongmyo (visiting ancestral graves.)

Chuseok festivities culminate in a feast of traditional Korean foods and rice wine. 

History

Chuseok traces back to Korea’s agrarian past—when the culture valued agriculture and farming as a superior way of life. 

According to popular lore, Chuseok began 2,000 years ago. The third king of the ancient kingdom, Silla, held a month-long weaving contest. Two teams competed in the contest, and the team that wove the most in the given time won. They were rewarded with a feast and other gifts, which began the yearly tradition.

An alternative history states that Chuseok originally existed to celebrate Silla’s victory over a rival kingdom called Baekje. The king at that time, according to the tale, found a turtle with an oddly-marked shell. His advisers informed him that the markings meant, “Baekje full moon, Silla half-moon.” The king and his party interpreted the turtle’s message to mean that Baekje would fall and Silla would rise. 

Other scholars believe that Chuseok is a holiday adapted from ancient shamanistic rites which have long existed to celebrate the harvest moon at the autumn equinox. 

Location

The holiday of Chuseok is a major holiday in both North and South Korea. The celebration predates the division of Korea into two separate countries, and families on both sides of the border maintain the tradition.  

But the division between North and South Korea created some differences in how people celebrate Chuseok. For example, North Korea didn’t officially recognize Chuseok as a public holiday until the 1980s. 

South Koreans spend the day with family members giving thanks, while North Koreans are thought to have fewer familial gatherings on Chuseok. This is due primarily to economic and social issues, as well as a poor infrastructure that makes travel more difficult in North Korea. 

In South Korea, family members tend to return to their ancestral provinces from the larger cities like Seoul, which results in some of the year’s biggest traffic jams in the nation. 

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What’s the Date for Chuseok?

Chuseok is also sometimes called Hangawai, which translates roughly to “the middle of August.” Korea celebrates Chuseok on the 15th day of the 8th month of every year, according to the lunar calendar. This date represents the autumn equinox (when summer ends and fall begins). It’s also the date of a full harvest moon each year. 

Following the Gregorian calendar, Chuseok can fall anywhere from mid- to late-September, or even early October. 

Chuseok celebrations last for three days, including the day before Chuseok’s official date and the day after. 

Here are some upcoming dates for Chuseok (according to the Gregorian calendar) so you can mark the date: 

  • 2020: September 30 - October 2 
  • 2021: September 20 - September 22
  • 2022: September 9 - September 11
  • 2023: September 28 - September 30
  • 2024: September 16 - September 18
  • 2025: October 5 - October 7

How to Celebrate Chuseok

If you’re visiting Korea during Chuseok, or you want to throw a traditional Chuseok celebration, there are several traditions to follow. Many of these traditions and rituals resemble Thanksgiving Day preparations, but they also have deeper connotations. 

Charye: worshiping the ancestors

Charye is the central ancestral worship rite that Koreans perform on Chuseok. The ritual includes laying out food and incense for relatives and ancestors who’ve passed away. Similar ancestral worship rituals often take place on the anniversaries of loved ones’ deaths and as part of Korean funerals

Charye traditionally took place at the ancestors’ graves, which were typically grassy mounds. Ordering included food and alcohol, including home-made wine from fresh rice. 

But in modern times, Koreans no longer bury the dead in grassy mounds as often. Instead of visiting a burial mound, most families perform the charye rite in the ancestral home. Typically, the family will lay out pictures of the deceased and spread the feast out before them. 

Beolcho and seongmyo: cleaning and visiting the grave

Even if you perform the charye offering at home, it’s still customary to visit ancestral graves. The family may need to visit multiple individual graves, rather than a single, grassy burial mound. 

Beolcho is the process of cleaning a grave, and seongmyo is the practice of visiting the grave. Family members will generally go to deceased relatives graves, cut the grass around the site, remove debris from the tomb, and clear any weeds. 

Chuseok food and drink

For the charye, and for the family’s feast, the family (traditionally the women of the family) prepare many specific types of food and drink. The dishes vary from region to region, but most homes feature Korean staples like these on Chuseok: 

Songpyeon 

The signature dish of Chuseok is songpyeon. Songpyeon are half-moon shaped rice cookies. They’re traditionally stuffed with a variety of fillings and steamed over pine needles. Typical fillings include pine nuts, honey, and sesame seeds. 

Japchae

Japchae is a type of Korean stir-fried glass-noodle dish which usually features a mix of colorful vegetables and meat. The word Japchae is a combination of the Korean words “jap,” which means “mix,” and “chae,” which means vegetable. 

Jeon

A jeon is a type of Korean pancake, and many families serve a variety of this traditional dish on Chuseok. You can make jeon with various ingredients, from kimchi to summer squash and seafood. 

Bibimbap

Bibimbap is not only a popular dish in Korea; it’s also popular amongst foreigners. The dish features the five Korean cardinal colors of white, green, yellow, black, and red, and it includes a wide variety of healthy vegetables. 

Rice liquor

Alcoholic beverages play a major role in Chuseok. The liquor most people drink on the holiday is called baekju, which translates to “white liquor.” It’s often nicknamed sindoju, which translates to “new rice liquor,” referring to newly-harvested rice. 

Playing games

After the feast, it’s traditional for Korean families to spend the evening playing traditional Chuseok games. Some of these traditional games include: 

Hwatu

Hwatu is a popular card game that originated from a Japanese game called Hanafuda. It’s the most popular card game in Korea today. 

Ssireum 

A ssireum is a type of wrestling match that determines the strongest man. 

Jegichagi 

Jegichagi is a game that’s similar to hacky-sack, and children often play the game on Chuseok.

Jultagi

Jultagi, or tightrope walking, is another popular athletic activity that often takes place in the evening of Chuseok. 

Ganggangsullae

The Ganggangsullae is a traditional folk dance that has long been a part of Chuseok tradition. Women traditionally perform the dance under a full moon while singing and dancing in a circle and holding hands. The dance is more historical than modern, so you might not see it take place in current-day homes very often. 

Gifts

It’s also common for families to give each other presents as part of the Chuseok celebration. In supermarkets across South Korea in the weeks leading up to Chuseok, you’ll see gift sets for sale that are perfect for the holiday. 

Some more traditional gifts include fresh fruit, cooking oil, and high-quality cuts of meat. 

Giving Thanks on Chuseok

Although Chuseok is similar to the North American holiday of Thanksgiving in many ways, it centers around the idea of thanking the ancestors. Koreans take the time to visit ancestral gravesites on Chuseok and to make offerings to their departed relatives. 

Whether you’re visiting Korea during the festivities, or you’re just interested in learning how different cultures acknowledge death, you now know a little more about the biggest Korean holiday, Chuseok. 


Sources

  1. “Chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving Day (English).” Koreanet. 5 February 2012. www.youtube.com/watch?v=4e9N9IAGKYU
  2. “Chuseok: Korean Thanksgiving Day.” Asia Society. asiasociety.org/korea/chuseok-korean-thanksgiving-day
  3. Hong, Clara. “Korean History 101: Chuseok (추석).” ATK Magazine. 25 September 2015. atkmagazine.com/2015/09/28/korean-history-101-chuseok-%EC%B6%94%EC%84%9D/
  4. “Celebrating Chuseok with Signature Foods.” Visit Korea. 9 September 2019. english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/ATR/SI_EN_3_6.jsp?cid=2415313

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