Written by Jake Hollingsworth
In the first week of September, South Korean leader Moon Jae-In claimed the greatest victory of his young presidency by declaring 2017 the year of the Super Chuseok (추석). A cry of joyful disbelief filled the skies as the announcement rapidly filtered throughout the country. Ordinarily, the holiday lasts for a period of three days: the official Chuseok day (this year Wednesday, October 4) and the days immediately before and after (Tuesday, October 3 and Thursday, October 5). However, 2017 is a unique year. Friday, October 6, being sandwiched between the holidays and the weekend, is a Chuseok “observance day.” In addition to the weekends on either side and Hangeul Day on October 9, the government of South Korea deemed it acceptable to declare Monday, October 2 as a temporary holiday, granting millions of grateful citizens and foreigners residing on the peninsula a rare 10-day break stretching from Saturday, September 30 through Monday, October 9.
South Koreans celebrate two major holidays: Seollal (설날, the first day of the lunar calendar) and Chuseok. Chuseok signifies the harvest season, and it is observed when the full harvest moon appears in the sky in the middle of the 8th lunar month.
Because of its timing and significance, Chuseok is often compared to Thanksgiving and Christmas in America. For thousands of foreigners living and working in South Korea, the holiday means little more than paid vacation and time to travel; but for the millions of native Koreans, both at home and abroad, it is a more meaningful time of year. Traditionally, Koreans travel to the family patriarch’s home to gather with extended family, exchange gifts, and remember their relatives who have passed away.
Brian and Myoung-Jin Klein, a young married couple in Korea, offer a unique perspective on the holiday. Brian is a native Texan who moved to South Korea as an English teacher. His wife is a native Korean who grew up just outside of Seoul in the community of Deokjeong. After a short stint in Texas, the Kleins decided to return to Korea, this time bringing along a new baby girl.
For the holiday, they meet early in the morning at Myoung-Jin’s family home to perform traditional ceremonies out of respect for their ancestors. The rites resemble memorial services for deceased relatives. The typical ceremony, called charye (차례), includes offerings of rice, traditional alcohol, and songpyeon (송편, sweet rice cakes, filled with sesame seeds and sugar). After the ritual, family members sit down together to eat. (Another custom that some families observe includes visiting the graves of the departed ancestors to perform a memorial ritual, as well as cleaning the site of any weeds that have grown.)
For Brian and Myoung-Jin, Chuseok is less about tradition and more about relaxing and catching up with family they don’t see regularly. Family members stop by periodically throughout the morning to socialize, trade gifts, and eat. The family dresses in formal clothing, but not traditional hanbok (한복). Brian said, “My first Chuseok was before I met my wife, so it was rather boring. I was new to the country and tried to tour Seoul when most of the shops and restaurants were closed. It was kind of a surreal time for foreigners here, like a mystery or thriller flick. We roamed the streets looking for signs of civilization the first day of Chuseok. After joining my wife’s family, I was excited. It was a great learning experience, in my opinion. Coming from a half-Asian background, it was interesting to draw some comparisons. I also enjoy eating, drinking, and playing games with the in-laws. For that moment, we can forget about the outside world and focus on ourselves.”
In a country with the Confucian tradition of patriarchal dominance, especially in the family, Myoung-Jin and Brian hold a more modern and evolving goal for their daughter when it comes to holidays and family gatherings – Chuseok most of all. They say it is a commonly held tradition that most families tend to let the women slave over all of the preparations while the men eat and drink. However, the Kleins say that with younger couples they know, it has been a marriage deal-breaker. The Kleins are happy that their daughter will grow up observing and participating in the local culture, but they also want her to feel like an equal. “Fortunately, my father-in-law and I have been able to commit our time to helping with the preparation before and clean up afterward,” Brian said.
With an American upbringing, Brian notices an accurate comparison with Thanksgiving and Christmas. “In terms of seeing family and giving gifts,” he says, “I see the parallels with Thanksgiving and Christmas in America in a lot of ways.” However, he has also observed a refreshing difference. “The way people enjoy Chuseok is a bit different. Turkey day is about eating until you pass out for us, and Christmas is always about surprising the little ones with gifts from Santa and holiday cheer. Chuseok feels a bit more honest in a way. You simply enjoy time with the people and don’t have to hype it up with over-prepared food or expensive gifts. Gift-giving on Chuseok usually has more value. People tend to give things like food, expensive/rare ingredients, vitamins, or health supplements.” With the long holiday quickly approaching, Brian and Myoung-Jin, along with the rest of the country, are looking with anticipation to a week of rest, togetherness, and recharging.
Jake Hollingsworth is an American English teacher living in Naju.