The Korean Harvest Moon Festival called “Chusok” is over 2,000 years old, but it is now also sometimes referred to as “Korean Thanksgiving” because it is the traditional time for Koreans to thank their ancestors for the year's harvest. A three-day celebration that falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, Chusok usually takes place in September or October on the Gregorian (Western) calendar.
Chusok is the most popular holiday in Korea, so it is a time of high travel and unbelievable traffic as people journey to visit their families of origin or the graves of their ancestors. It is also a gift-giving holiday, and friends, employers, and coworkers exchange gifts of food, alcohol, fruit, and other non-perishable items.
Chusok Traditions: Remembering Ancestors
Traditional celebrations usually include a visit to cleaned and cleared ancestral graves and a memorial rite (“jesa”) with food offerings and to-the-floor bowing (traditionally this is only done by male family members). A shrine to family ancestors is set up to deceased family members and offerings include stacks of fresh fruit and nuts, alcohol, and savory dishes. Some Christian families omit the ancestral table and instead do a short service with ancestors in mind; other non-religious and less traditional Korean families just celebrate Chusok with a family feast.
Chusok Food and Drink
In the past, Korean women would prepare for days in advance, cooking for the Chusok feasts and making special rice cakes (dduk) called songpyun. Usually molded by hand into the shape of a half moon, songpyun are made from a dough of rice flour and are stuffed with sesame seeds and/or chestnuts sweetened with honey. They are then steamed with pine needles, and the distinctive fresh scent of pine infuses the songpyun and the air. Many families still make songpyun at home, but now many people also buy songpyun at the store.
Songpyun and other types of Korean rice cakes (“dduk”) are always eaten and exchanged during Chusok, and there is also usually at least one family feast during the holiday.
Suggested Menu For Chusok Feast
Chusok represents some of the most important aspects of Korean culture: family, respect for elders and ancestors, and the sharing of communal food and drink. Because Chusok is such a huge time of family gatherings, family games and activities and community events are an important part of the holiday. Families play traditional Korean board games like yut nori (a game of tossing sticks), hwa-tu (Korean cards), or paduk (strategy checkerboard game). These days, families may also watch movies and play modern board and card games.
Outdoor activities are also popular during Chusok, and many used to incorporate whole villages in the festivities. Noltigi, Korea's version of the seesaw, is a popular holiday activity. Noltigi is done standing; the participants (usually women) stand up on opposite sides of a longboard and are launched high in the air. Kite flying, archery, and wrestling are traditional Korean outdoor activities for Chusok. The evening features traditional dances: children dance in a circle under the moon to celebrate, and there is also Gang gang sullae, a women's circle dance which speeds up into a breathtaking whirlwind of color.