By Yang Sung-jin
Chusok, a.k.a. Korean Thanksgiving Day, is the most important traditional Korean holiday. Every year it falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month (Oct. 5, this year) and is a celebration of the autumn harvest.
Most Koreans will visit their hometowns and their family grave sites while dealing with another holiday tradition — traffic. At this time of year, all expressways and other roads are moving parking lots.
But, putting that annoyance aside, they will give thanks for the bounty of the earth and present offerings consisting of fresh fruits and the year’s new crops to their ancestors.
Songpyon, crescent-shaped rice cakes, and other delicacies will be joyfully ingested during this holiday period. Meanwhile, people will don hanbok, Korean traditional clothing, and walk the streets, turning them into a beautiful mosaic of bright colors. And the moon, at its fullest point of the year, will illuminate them all.
Of course, Korea is not the only country that celebrates its autumn harvest. Indeed, most nations around the world observe a harvest festival, though how and when they celebrate it differs from region to region.
The Korean holiday of Chusok has a long history, tracing back to the Three Kingdoms era on the Korea peninsula.
Kim Pu-sik’s “Samguk Sagi” (History of the Three Kingdoms) contains an article that may explain the origins of Chusok. During the reign of King Yuri of the Silla Kingdom, women living in the capital city were divided into two teams and encouraged to compete with each other to see who could make the best rope over a period from July 15 through Chusok. Meanwhile, a number of articles in the Annals of the Choson Dynasty are related to Chusok, providing a glimpse of how the kings and officials celebrated the holiday.
In a brief article dated Aug. 13, 1402 (the first piece about Chusok that appears in the Annals), King Taejong is said to have observed Chusok by visiting the tomb of Queen Sinui, the wife of Yi Song-gye, the man who founded the Choson Kingdom.
In fact, many of the articles in the Annals tell of kings visiting the tombs of their predecessors, thus shedding light on Korean’s modern ritual of visiting tombs to worship their ancestors.
In 1417, King Taejong and his predecessor King Chongjong, who retired as an honorary king, hosted a Chusok party for his court officials. After the sumptuous party, the two watched a falconry display as court dancers and musicians performed in the background.
In addition, officials Kim Han-ro, Kwang Rok-kyong and Kyon Yong-kyu received hawks as Chusok gifts.
The next year, King Taejong retired, handing over the throne to King Sejong. On the day of Chusok, King Taejong visited Kyongwon-rung, the tomb of King Taejo, and remembered the late founder of the nation: “Oh, your virtue was as high as the heavens. Having governed the nation with my inferior ability over the past 19 years, I have finally handed the throne to the Crown Prince because of my poor health. And, I traveled to the old capital [Kaesong] this spring and summer, failing to visit you. Now on the day of Chusok, I feel fearful and sorry in front of you.” And the king poured a drink onto the tomb as a way of honoring the dead.
King Taejong’s passion regarding regular visits to one’s ancestors’ tombs is still widely shared these days. For those who have family tombs, an essential part of Chusok is to visit the place to sweep and tidy up the sites. Those who fail to fulfill their filial duty are likely to feel guilty and may be the target of finger-pointing by their neighbors.
The fact of the matter is that the tombs are likely to catch fire during the dry fall season unless nearby grasses that have grown during the summer are weeded out.
Thus, anything that might harm the dignity of one’s ancestors is abhorred and shunned during the Chusok season. But, of course, not all things go as planned.
During a Chusok ceremony in 1492, an official named Yun Un-bo slipped while carrying one of the sacred tablets of the former kings and shattered it.
King Yonsangun said, “The spirit must have been disturbed by the accident. Refer to the old cases suggesting possible countermeasures.” Meanwhile, official Yun was put in prison and interrogated for his grave mistake.
Noticing the trend of the times to conduct extravagant Chusok ceremonies, King Sejo ordered officials to simplify formalities in order to restore the true value of the holiday.
“In rituals, what matters most is sincerity and the avoidance of complicated and boisterous decorations. If colorful embellishments mean sincerity, we would have to use gold and silver for the rituals. Using scarce goods for such ceremonies is the last thing our ancestors want from us,” the king said.
There is an interesting article that explains the origin of going out and watching the beauty of the full moon on the night of Chusok.
In 1489, King Songjong was set to celebrate Chusok and watch the full moon along with officials. But the act of watching the moon was not an established custom then.
“In the past, Chinese people used to watch the moon. They had their own reasons and we cannot blame them for that. Although there is no such custom in Choson, I don’t see anything wrong with such an act, especially at a time when the weather is perfect. I will hold a party with my officials and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere myself.”
Not surprisingly, officials did not oppose. Yet, what’s unexpected in the article is the fact that watching the full moon was a relatively new activity in the late 15th century.
As with most official festivities, Chusok court parties were not places where low-ranking officials could feel comfortable, although they were free to drink.
In 1490, in recognition of this fact, officials in charge of party preparations suggested a venue that could simultaneously accommodate both high-ranking and low-ranking officials.
But, the king did not grant the change of venue. “Two different venues will be better because the low-ranking officials feel uncomfortable playing in front of their superiors,” King Songjong said.
Consideration for others, after all, runs deep in the tradition of Chusok, an occasion on which people share food, play with their neighbors, remember their ancestors and give thanks for the harvest.