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Chusok: The Korean Thanksgiving

By Eun Mee Kim

Chusok, Korea’s annual thanksgiving holiday, is one of the biggest migration events in modern Korea. Over half of the population visits families and ancestral graves during the three-day holiday, which usually falls sometime in September or October.

Families living in big cities like Seoul make a massive exodus by car, express bus, train, airplane, and ferry. There are long lines of cars leaving Seoul on the days preceding Chusok, causing massive traffic jams on the freeways and major rural routes. This year a trip by car from Seoul to Busan, which usually takes about five hours, was reported as taking as long as 20 hours!

Festive occasions, such as Chusok, demonstrate the importance of family to Korean society. Family members, usually from the paternal line, get together to prepare food, honor their ancestors, and cherish relatives, both living and deceased. Chusok is a reminder that families are connected and bonded in the same fortune and ancestors live through the offspring as part of people’s daily lives.

Holiday festivities begin many days before the actual holiday, as women busily prepare food to be put on the ancestral plate for the Chusok ceremony. They begin preparations for the festivities weeks in advance by going to the market to buy the newly harvested rice, apples, crisp pears, juju beans, chestnuts, sesame seeds, pine needles, and so on. You might wonder why people need pine needles. Koreans, like many people from traditional cultures around the world, celebrate holidays with special food. Pine needles are an essential ingredient of the Korean rice cakes called song pyun. These cakes are made with finely ground new rice as the basic dough, which is filled with toasted sesame seeds, chestnuts, or peas sweetened with honey or sugar.

Making song pyun is one of the most festive activities associated with Chusok. Several generations of women work in a big circle over bowls filled with glutinous rice dough and many wonderful fillings. The song pyun are then carefully arranged between piles of freshly washed pine needles in a huge steamer. The pine needles prevent the sticky rice cakes from clinging to each other and most of all infuse the whole house with the wonderful smell of pine trees.

Grandmothers speak gently about the days when they were young, making song pyun, and tell their granddaughters, “Girls who make pretty song pyun will have pretty daughters!” Making song pyun brings together generations of women and gives them an opportunity to share their life stories. This took place more often in traditional Korea, when at least three generations lived in the same household. Nowadays most families are nuclear, and thus Chusok provides an opportunity for different generations to interact and appreciate their extended family. However, fewer and fewer people know how to make song pyun or other traditional foods. Instead, they buy prepared or packaged foods in supermarkets and department stores.

On Chusok morning the family carefully prepares the ancestral table for a memorial ceremony. The house of the eldest son is usually the site of the gathering. Family members arrive early in the morning to participate in the ceremony. The eldest male descendant from the line of eldest sons (even if he is not the eldest male in the family) usually presides over the ceremony. There are many rounds of bowing to the floor from a kneeling position, and ancestors are offered wine and food. After the ceremony all the food is taken out of the room and rearranged for the family to eat. The family sits around the table to eat the wonderful food prepared by the female relatives over the past few days and reminisce about the ancestors. After the meal some of the food that has been set aside is taken to the graves of the ancestors.

Next: Tradition and changing times