Chuseok on Jeju, Jeju, South Korea
Every year, Chuseok, which falls on August 15th of the lunar calendar, is celebrated by families all over Korea. Family members return to their home-towns to be with family, causing huge traffic jams and resulting in trains, planes and buses being booked up months in advance. While many westerners refer to Chuseok as “a Korean Thanksgiving” or “kind of like our Christmas”, few non-Koreans really know what it’s all about. So, if you’re curious to find out what all the fuss is about, read on.
At Chuseok, families gather together in order to remember their loved ones who have passed away. Family members usually gather at the eldest brother’s house to pay their respects to deceased parents, grand-parents and great grandparents – for three generations.
Preparations begin several days before Chuseok with the responsibility falling to the women of the family. Meat is usually ordered well ahead of time as is the special rice cakes required (called “song pyeon”-송편). Two days before Chuseok, the eldest brother’s wife, sometimes together with other female family members, buy the food that will be cooked and served to the whole family. On the day before Chuseok the work begins in earnest. The women come together at the eldest brother’s house and begin to cook the meats and the many side dishes. They also clean and prepare the many special bowls and plates that are only used for ancestor worship (재기).
The day of Chuseok
On the morning of Chuseok, family members start arriving between 7am – 8am bringing rice, fruit, drinks and other special foods that are central to the ancestor worship ceremony. The women again congregate in the kitchen cooking and preparing food.
The rites of ancestor worship are the responsibility of the men. In a quiet area of the house, a special folding screen (병풍) is set up behind a long low table (잿상) together with a straw mat. First, the eldest brother lights some incense and candles, then the women give the food, spoons and chopsticks to the men who place them on the table according to set rituals. Usually the eldest brother is in charge with a younger nephew or son assisting.
In a highly ritualized ceremony, the eldest brother pours drinks and offers food to the ancestors. Once the ancestors’ food and drinks are prepared, the eldest brother writes the dead ancestors’ names on some white paper – women’s names on the left, men’s names on the right. It is now time to bow in front of the table. The men offer their bows first, then the younger men. Next the women enter the room to bow and finally the children.
After the bowing, the white paper is taken outside and burned. If the burnt paper rises high in the air, the family can expect good luck in the coming year. Paper that doesn’t burn, or rises and then falls to the ground, is a sign of bad things to come.
Once these rituals are finished the family then sits down to eat a huge feast that includes the special foods offered to the ancestors.
What to do as a foreigner
If you’re invited to a Chuseok family gathering it’s polite to take along a small gift such as fruit or drinks. It’s important to dress conservatively – wear socks or stockings on your feet and make sure your knees and shoulders are covered. Chuseok with a Korean family will give you special insights into Korean family life and culture.
– With thanks to Ahn Hye Kyoung and her family for inviting me to Chuseok and allowing me to photograph