Chuseok is a Korean holiday that can be most easily be compared to a Western Christmas Day. Usually falling towards the end of September and if you’re lucky coming with a three day holiday from work, depending on how it falls.
It is a Thanksgiving Harvest holiday where Korean’s get their family together for a big feast and also visit the graves of their ancestors. These visits might be to ancestors as recently departed as a much loved Grandma, if there is a family plot though (usually on a hillside) then there might be many family members to visit.
Just like in the West, each family is different. In some the older son or sibling is responsible of grave upkeep and will lead this day on the mountain. In others the whole family goes, in some, just the men. It often seems to end with lots of soju and broken glass.
Chuseok is a busy time for the ladies of the family as they are the main ones who keep everyone fed. Traditionally Korean’s eat sticky white rice at most meals and this will be put in a bowl and added to, there might be a traditional stew and several side dishes, which are shared by all the family. These side dishes usually include Kimchi (cabbage fermented in chillies and spices such as ginger and garlic) and Gochu paste (red chilli pepper paste).
Of course at Chuseok, just like our Christmas Day meal, the expectations are raised. Family women may make 30 or more individual dishes for the table! Some can be made months prior and just packed up in Tupperware to bring to the host’s home, others will need to be made in the preceding days, others like omelettes might be made when everyone arrives.
Family members who might be spread across South Korea, or even the world, will be expected to make their way to a family home and share in the bounty and spend time together. Just as in the Western world, for those who have left home and started families of their own, or who have travelled far for work, these expectations can cause rifts and family upsets when they have to choose whose families to visit or whether to come home at this very traditional and emotional time of year.
Gift giving is also a part of this holiday, but unlike Christmas when we all hope to get things we want, in general Korean’s give things you need. I got a two-pack of 2 litre Soy Oil one year. Another I got a gift pack of shampoo and soap. Gift packs of spam and even oranges are common place.
For a foreigner living in Korea there might be several options: perhaps a quiet few days at home or you might be invited to one of your Korean friend’s homes to join them at Chuseok – this is quite an honour and you will be a celebrated guest – or you might decide to take a trip.
For me, I decided to go off travelling further afield. I was delighted to find that since everyone had rushed out to family homes in the countryside, leaving most city centres a deserted wasteland (all that was missing was the tumbleweed!) the roads were delightfully silent. I drove North, up the highway (a celebration of Korean engineering that uses towering bridges and tunnels through mountain after mountain to maintain a long straight sweep across the country) and then west. I was headed for the west coast, I wanted to see the sea.