We are well into September and fast approaching the autumnal equinox and the Harvest Festival of Mabon. As I have mentioned many times before, this is my absolute favorite time of year! September and October have always been months of pure beauty and magic for me. It is a time to enjoy all the gifts the earth has given us and to offer thanks in return. For this reason many autumn harvest festivals exist throughout the world. We have discussed several of these in the past on the blog, most notably Mabon, the Chinese Mid-Autumn Moon Festival and of course Halloween which is a celebration of the late harvest among its other attributes. Today, I would like a take a look at Chuseok, a Korean harvest festival that is also a time to honor ancestors and shares many characteristics with the American celebration of Thanksgiving. Chuseok, like the Chinese Mid Autumn Moon Festival, falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which this year coincides with October 4th on the western calendar.
Chuseok occurs on the same date as the Chinese Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, although curiously the beautiful harvest moon is not really a focal point of Chuseok celebrations. It is much more about celebrating the harvest and venerating ancestors and also spending time with family. All schools and businesses close down for at least three days during Chuseok and people travel to their native cities and villages to spend time with family and enjoy lavish meals. In this regard, Chuseok bears a sticking resemblance to the American Thanksgiving. It is common in many homes for the younger generations to wear traditional costumes and kowtow to elderly family members as a sign of respect while making their annual Chuseok visit. In addition to paying respects to living relatives, it is also a time to honor the dead. It is a common practice to visit cemeteries in the days leading up to Chuseok and clean and decorate the family tombs in preparation for the holiday. In addition to visiting familial graves, it is a common practice to prepare a table at home called a Charye on which food offerings are placed for the ancestors. Soup and rice are placed on the north sides of the table, on the south freshly harvested fruits and vegetables, on the west meat and on the east rice cakes and drinks. Also, a small plate of food is placed outside the home for wandering spirits who may not have families to prepare an altar for them. There are also regional customs throughout Korea and different local ways of honoring ancestors and making offerings, but the custom of remembering one’s family both living and departed remains a constant theme of Chuseok wherever it is celebrated.
There are also many secular aspects to the celebration of Chuseok in modern times. Starting in the 1960’s it became customary to give gifts to family members and friends. At first the typical gifts were household items that people would commonly need such as soap, shampoo, socks etc. but as Korea became more prosperous the gifts became more elaborate and today they can be as expensive and extravagant as one’s personal finances will permit. Playing games and engaging in folk dances are traditional activities and it is customary to indulge in a variety of sticky rice cakes called songpyeon filled with syrups and other sweet fillings. Chuseok is celebrated in both North and South Korea but in the north it tends to be a much more subdued affair as freedom of religion and movement are highly restricted in North Korea making it difficult to perform ancestor veneration rituals and travel to different parts of the country to see family. In fact, from the 1950’s until the 1980’s the celebration of Chuseok was forbidden all together. Today most people in the north make a simple visit to their family graves and may indulge in a more elaborate meal than usual during Chuseok if supplies and money permit.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief discussion of Chuseok which I feel is a beautiful way of honoring family both living and departed and celebrating the bounty of the Earth. I hope that you are enjoying the fall season and as always I wish you peace, happiness and abundant blessings!