Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving

(VOVWORLD) - The Mid-Autumn Festival, known as Chuseok, is one of the biggest and most important festivals in Korea. It celebrates the autumn harvest and honors elderly family members, and is considered by many the Korean Thanksgiving Day. Today we have a Korean-Irish couple YoungHwi Cho and Emilee Jennings who will share with us some facts about this meaningful festival. 

Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving - ảnh 1 Emilee, Sofia and YoungHwi in Seoul for Chuseok 2019.


Ngoc Diep: Thank you for joining us today, YoungHwi and Emilee. Please introduce yourself so our listeners can get to know you. 

Emilee: Hi I’m Emilee and I’m a journalist from Ireland, but I lived in Seoul from 2012 until 2017. 

YoungHwi: And I’m YoungHwi from Seoul, Korea and I’m running my own global online business called Nomadtask.

Emilee: We met at a music event in Korea on Oct 2, 2012, and it was actually just a few days before Chuseok – so Chuseok is a double celebration for us! YoungHwi fell madly in love with me (hee hee) and so he proposed in Dec 2013 and we got married in Seoul in April 2014 and then had a second wedding celebration in my hometown, Sligo, in August.

YoungHwi: and we’ve been living in Sligo, Ireland for the past 3 years.

Ngoc Diep: WellChuseok is approaching and on this occasion, Koreans often return to their hometowns to visit their parents and other relatives. Is Chuseok held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month in Korea like the Mid-Autumn Festival in some other Asian countries, including Vietnam?

Emilee: Yes, in Korea, Chuseok is also celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, so this year the Chuseok celebration falls on Thursday, October 1st. The holiday lasts 3 days, so the day before and the day after are also public holidays. Usually people prepare the food the day before and rest the day after. Chuseok always falls in autumn – between September and October depending on the lunar calendar - and it’s one the best times of the year to visit South Korea because the weather is mild and you can see beautiful vibrant colors everywhere you look. It’s the perfect time for a lovely hike in one of the many mountains in Korea.

Ngoc Diep:  How does Chuseok mean to Koreans?

YoungHwi: Chuseok is a harvest Thanksgiving celebration when Koreans bring gifts to their parents and honor their ancestors. Generally, people leave Seoul and go back to their home town. My parents live in Seoul, so we were able to avoid the traffic jams and enjoy a less crowded city. 

Emilee: In our family Chuseok is all about celebrating, remembering and thanking our ancestors and we do this through a ritual called Charye. Generally, the eldest son of a Korean household sets the table and arranges the positioning of traditional Korean dishes. We then bow to honor our ancestors and in our family we turn our backs for a few minutes to let our ancestors enjoy the spirit of the food before we sit down together to share the meal.

Ngoc Diep: As our lifestyle changes, are there any modern aspects to how Koreans celebrate Chuseok?

Emilee: A modern custom is gift-giving to friends and work colleagues. Family members offer presents to their relatives —as they always have— but now some younger generations also give small presents to friends and business acquaintances, as well. Chuseok gives Koreans an opportunity to express gratitude and appreciation not only to family members but to others around them.

Ngoc Diep: Tell us about some traditional Chuseok gift ideas?

Emilee: Some traditional Chuseok gift ideas include high-quality cuts of beef, fresh fish, fruit and luxury cooking oils. Many work places will also give their staff a bonus or a gift. So if you visit South Korea in the weeks before Chuseok, you’ll notice that supermarkets and department stores have huge selections of gift sets —made up of everything from Korean snacks to useful household and personal items. But nowadays the most popular gift is money. So grown up children generally put money into an envelope and present it to their parents at Chuseok.

Ngoc Diep: And what do Koreans often eat during Chuseok?

YoungHwi: During Chuseok, traditionally Korean women prepare a memorial ceremony called Charye. The tradition includes filling a table with food such as freshly harvested rice and fruit and special dishes, such as Songpyeon which is a type of rice cake. This delicacy is made with finely ground rice shaped into small rounds and filled with nuts, sesame seeds, or beans. Songpyeon are steamed over layers of pine needles, so it fills your home with a delicious fragrance.

Emilee: It's really yummy. If you are planning to spend time in South Korea during Chuseok, you should try some of the traditional Chuseok food. I recommend Songpyeon and Jeon which is a Korean pancake. You can get all different types like kimchi jeon, potato and meat jeon or seafood jeon. Kimchi jeon is my favourite. And you should also make sure to sample some juicy Korean pears, a very important fruit during Chuseok. 

Ngoc Diep: So if I want to travel around Korea during Chuseok, where should I go and what should I do?

Younghwi: If you are planning on visiting South Korea in the autumn, make sure to check whether your travel dates coincide with Chuseok. If you can travel on these dates it’ll give you a unique opportunity to taste traditional foods prepared especially for this celebration. But, if you are staying in Seoul and planning to visit other parts of South Korea, Chuseok is probably not the best time as there can be huge traffic jams and some places may be closed for the holiday. 

Emilee: The best option would be to stay in Seoul for Chuseok so that you can avoid the heavy traffic and also take advantage of the city’s peace and quiet. Most locals leave Seoul to visit their families in their hometowns, so you can enjoy a less crowded version of the city and the good news is most – if not all – places in Seoul stay open throughout the holiday. And if you still want to explore other parts of South Korea you could aim to visit those places either before or after Chuseok.

Ngoc Diep: That sounds very tempting. Can you suggest some places that visitors can go in Seoul during Chuseok?

YoungHwi: If you are traveling to Seoul during Chuseok, the first place I’d recommend is Gyeongbokgung Palace which hosts a Bukchon Lion Play and tight rope walking. There’s also lots of fun activities happening in Gwanghwamun Square which is just outside the palace. And the Seoul Museum of History has a show with professional traditional dancers and musicians performing all day long throughout the Chuseok holiday. 

Emilee: On top of all that, the National Folk Museum holds workshops where visitors can learn a variety of traditional crafts like making inkstones, fans and handkerchiefs. I made a traditional Korean fan a few years and I still have it – so that would be a lovely momentum from your holiday. And tourists can also try on some Hanbok clothing while learning how to do a traditional Korean bow properly. Also, most of the shopping centres like Coex and Times Square will remain open during Chuseok and some might even be running special events. And amusement parks Everland and Lotteworld sometimes host folk festivals during the holidays and are open to the public. 

Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving - ảnh 2

From left: YoungHwi, Sofia, Minja, Yongmarn and Emilee on the outskirts of Seoul during Chuseok 2019.

Ngoc Diep: I know that your little family is staying away from Seoul this Chuseok. How are you gonna celebrate this year’s Chuseok? Can you share your plans with our listeners?

Emilee: We were in Korea last year for Chuseok and we had a wonderful time, our daughter Sofia was 18 months at the time, so it was a fun experience for her. We all put on our colourful hanboks and We did the Charye ritual with our family and we showed Sofia how to bow before eating the delicious food and then we went to Gwanghwamun Palace in Seoul to play some traditional Korean games.

But this year we’re going to celebrate in Sligo – I’ve booked the time off work and we’re going to dress up in our modern hanboks – which we bought in Seoul last year – Sofia and I both have beautiful purple ones and they are much less formal than the traditional ones so they are easier to wear. The plan is video chat with YoungHwi’s parents, eat some Irish pears, go for a nice walk at the beach in our lovely clothes and order some delicious Kimchi jeon from Miso - the local Korean restaurant here in Sligo.

Ngoc Diep: Thank you so much for sharing with us your wonderful stories and experiences about Chuseok. We wish you and your family all the best and a very happy Chuseok.