The real meaning of Chuseok

by ChiHon Kim
Stripes Korea

Chuseok, one of the most important holidays for Koreans, is just around the corner. Chuseok literally means “night with best autumn moonlight” and for us, it is a day as rich and relaxed as its poetic name.

This year, Chuseok will be observed Sept. 12-14, which means many Koreans will be off from work and will be heading to their hometowns to visit relatives. The holiday is a celebration of the harvest and signifies a type of homecoming to memorialize our ancestors.

During these days, there are a few rites that take place. One of them is Charye, a memorial service honoring our ancestors. This service is usually held at home in the living room or a large room, and usually begins between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. on the day of Chuseok. Back in the day, older relatives usually wore hanbok, traditional Korean dress, but nowadays most wear casual clothes.

After Charye, we have special Chuseok foods made on the eve of the holiday. These include songpyeon, half-moon-shaped rice cakes, and rice wine, set on the table in a certain manner. Families gather around the table to remember their ancestors, bow and then the Chuseok feast begins. My family usually has jeon, a type of fried Korean pancake, and japchae, Korean fried glass noodles, and other Korean dishes at our dinner table.

A second traditional ceremony, Seongmyo, is held when families visit ancestral graves and help clear and clean the gravesites of weeds and debris. A simple rite table is prepared, and we bow again to show respect to the deceased. During Chuseok, the cemeteries are filled with people and many cars.

As a child, for me Chuseok meant my elder relatives would give me pocket money and I’d get to see my cousins whom I hadn’t seen in a while. I would look forward to this more than showing respect to my ancestors at the memorial service.

In particular, playing traditional games such as Yut Nori with all of my family gathered around after the ceremony, was one of the great pleasures that I couldn’t miss.

To foreigners Yut Nori may seem like a complicated game, but it’s actually quite simple involving a large amount of strategy. The game uses a cloth gameboard and sticks and is won when one team or player brings the sticks “home” on the gameboard.

Families huddled together, shouting loudly and wishing for a certain score was a common spectacle back then. The competition and cheering for fellow team members made for a great evening spent bonding together and having fun.

Today, the meaning behind Chuseok seems to have faded. My family is spread out, some of my relatives moved to Gyeonggi Province, or to Seoul, complicating the plan of trying to get together. From my early-teens on, my family and I started to see less and less of each other on Chuseok, meaning no more Yut Nori.

And, it’s not just my family that has abandoned this tradition. South Koreans are starting to lose their ties with distant relatives.

Although Charye, the memorial rite, is still a must for most families, more and more people are going on family trips without doing any of the worship rituals. Or, as a compromise, some families will hold the memorial service before Chuseok and enjoy the holidays freely.

This Chuseok, I have decided I will go home and stay off my smartphone. I plan to talk with my parents more and help prepare the ritual food. Spending time with my family and enjoying their company is what I want for this holiday. Because that is the real meaning of Chuseok.

 

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