Today is the unofficial start to the Chuseok holiday in Korean culture (technically it starts tomorrow, but some employers let their employees leave early today). It’s often described as the Korean Thanksgiving, which there are a number of similarities, but there are also a number of differences.
Traditionally, during the Chuseok holidays, everyone goes to their family’s ancestorial home (for me, although I was born in Song-tan, my family would have gone to Han Yang) for three days. The first day is mainly for preparation, the food, gifts, and arranging all the family members in single area. The most common food items during this holiday are song-pyeon(tiny rice cakes filled with a sesame seed paste or chestnuts), bulgogi, and chap-jae. The middle day is the busiest, children are given new hanboks and after se-bae (traditional deep bows to one’s elders) they are often given money depending on how well they did their se-bae. Everyone goes to the family cemetary and pay their respects to the dead, leaving some of the food behind (this would be the Buddhist part of the holiday). The rest of the day and the last day is filled with food and games, as well as time to catch up with family members that haven’t been seen in a while.
Nowadays, people go to the house of the oldest living (male) family member to celebrate the holiday, but this still generally means that there is a mass exodus from Seoul during the holiday time. And on a somewhat humourous note, a couple of years ago, it was such an embarrassment for young Koreans to still be single, that they would hire holiday boyfriends/girlfriends to get their family off their backs about their age and singleness or they would just leave the country to avoid the discussions.
I did celebrate Chuseok while I was growing up and I did relate to the holiday, mainly because I’m Korean at my roots, but the biggest holiday on my personal calendar is Easter. Maybe because it’s the fact that I’m an orphan, my childhood celebrations of Chuseok was somewhat as an outsider, not as a member of any particular family. Or maybe because it’s actually based on the Buddhist religion and I grew and am a Catholic, so it’s odd to specially make food to leave on an altar for the spirits of my ancestors, at least to me.
The first year I was back here in Korea, I made the journey down to Song-tan and it was depressing because it’s about a 3 hour trip one-way and I just get to go stand at a cemetery with no clue which one is my dad’s. So I decided this year, I’m going to stay in Seoul and relax (catch up on my sleep, movies, and books).
Chu-seok jal-bo-nae se-yo!
FUNNY STORY: My students taught me the proper way to say, ‘Happy Chuseok,’ ‘Chu-seok jal-bo-nae se-yo.” And when I check with one of my vice-principals, to make sure that the kids weren’t trying to slip one past their kyoppo teacher and he was so excited that I knew it and that I could write it correctly. He then hurried me through the line of teachers and staff to say good-bye and happy holidays to the principal and made sure that I repeated it to the principal, who was extremely happy with me saying it to him in Korean instead of English, as was the female vice-principal, who told me that I’m the best English teacher at Singa Elementary School ever.