COVID-19 to put damper on South Korean holiday Chuseok

Photo courtesy of Emart
Photo courtesy of Emart

COVID-19 to put damper on South Korean holiday 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. 30 - Oct. 2. The long holiday usually means Koreans are off from work and will head to their hometowns to visit relatives to partake in ritual ceremonies and a family dinner. The holiday is a celebration of the harvest and signifies a type of homecoming to memorialize our ancestors.

Unfortunately, the unprecedented pandemic of Coronavirus will place a damper on the mass exodus of populations towards home across the peninsula.

Although I’d love to go home for Chuseok, I’ll probably spend it alone to protect mine and my family’s health. It will definitely give me the experience many of you have not being able to go home for the holidays.

For Chuseok, Koreans exchange gifts which are usually Hanwoo or Spam. This year, the traditional gift has changed to reflect the times as major retailers are pushing hygiene kits with hand sanitizer, alcohol swabs, handsoap, facemasks and other items for COVID-19 prevention.

Chuseok usually involves many different activities to reflect on our belated relatives. 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.

In recent years, the plans for Chuseok have changed for my family as we’re all spread out. 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.

Chuseok will definitely be different this year as we’re all hunkering down waiting out COVID-19 to go away. It will be the first time I spend the holiday away from my family, the way many of you living overseas have to spend Christmas away from yours. But, I look forward to next year when I’ll hopefully get to enjoy the gifts of Spam and the delicious feast I’ve grown accustomed to.


Speakin’ Korean

- What is Chuseok? 
Chuseogeun museun tteusieyo?

- Chuseok is the Korean Thanksgiving Day. 
Chuseokeun hangugui chusugamsajeorieyo.  

- Are you going to visit your hometown? 
Kohyang gasimnikka?

- It’s a time to honor ancestors. 
Josangeul senggakhaneun siganieyo.  

- The roads are very busy today. 
Oneul-eun doro-ga hon-jab-hae-yo.

- The holiday food looks delicious. 
Myeongjeol eumsigi masisseo boyeoyo.

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