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A Memorable Chuseok
By Carlton U. Forbes
Staff Writer & Columnist
Chuseok Holidays in S. Korea — Chuseok (秋夕), the Full Moon Day, is the most important national holidays for Koreans along with Seollal, Lunar New Year’s Day. On the Korean Thanksgiving Day, All dispersed family members gather to share fresh food, enjoying traditional games. They also do Charye, memorial services for ancestors, and Seongmyo, a visit to ancestors' graves. This year Chuseok falls on Oct. 4, 2017.

Holidays are joyous times for most people. Almost everyone loves holidays. Laborers, factory and office workers, professionals and technicians appreciate the opportunity to take a day off, spend time with their family and friends. Except for those who have the “Ebeneezer Scrooge syndrome,” holidays are like welcoming recess from the busyness of life.

Holidays provide the perfect excuse to take a break from work and enjoy quality time with families and friends. Like birthdays, holidays afford us unhurried occasion and special permission to honor a great historical figure or a national hero, to show patriotism, and reflect on important events in our past.

For these and other reasons, every culture, tribe and people have special days that are infused with historical and symbolic significance.

Also, some holidays give rise to special traditions like parades, celebrations and festivals. Others like Parents (Mother’s and Father’s) and Thanksgiving Days enable us to reunite with family, friends and neighbors. Aside from those mentioned above, there are holidays like Veterans Day that requires participation in somber ceremonies, official commemorations, sacred customs and rites.

Among the major holidays celebrated in Korea, Chuseok is my favorite. Why? That’s because the Harvest Moon Festival marks the seasonal change from summer to autumn, the beginning of the grain and fall fruit harvest. Timed with the full harvest moon, Chuseok is usually celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. The joyful feelings of farmers, laborers, and merchants are shared by families in farm villages, and city residents near of far.

Filled with thankfulness for golden grains of rice, buckwheat and soybeans, ripening fruits like deachu (Korean dates), apples, pears and persimmons; these farmers are happy to share their bounty with families and friends, even strangers.

During my decade long stay in Korea, I’ve had the unique opportunity of being a holiday guest in the homes of my Korean friends for both Chuseok and Solnal. Delightfully, I’ve taken accepted a few invitations of students and colleagues to share those festive occasions with their families. Those visits are part of my unforgettable holiday memories in Korea. One such visit comes to mind as a culturally enriching experience for me.

Some years ago, I’ve had the privilege of spending the Chuseok Holiday with a Korean family. A friend of mine asked me to accompany her to the home of a Korean friend. Since she felt somewhat uneasy about going alone, I decided to oblige her. Back then, we were both living in the same small town of Kwanghye Won; so it was easy to pick her up and set off on the long drive to Sangju, North Jolla Province.

Surprisingly, the drive to Sangju was much faster than I expected. The traffic moved along quite smoothly, so our journey lasted just a little over three hours. The family lived on the outskirts of the city, in a nice country home. Even more surprising is the fact that we arrived ahead of the friend who invited us. That was a bit awkward for two foreign guests, showing up, unaccompanied in small town Korea on the eve of Chuseok. That’s because she the friend who invited us and her sister had to travel all the way from Seoul. Another unexpected visitor was the younger sister’s boyfriend, who was also invited home for the holidays.

Once everyone arrived, we settled into the cozy home and feasted on a delectable home cooked meal. After eating, we went to the Sangju Bus Terminal to pick up the foreign boyfriend. Then, we returned to the home, had tea, chatted for a while, and prepared for bed. Early on Chuseok morning, before the birds started their morning medley, Mrs. Jeon got up, and began preparing for the charye rites (ancestral ceremony).

Dismayingly, with all the chopping and dicing, other clanging sounds that came from the kitchen, my late morning snooze was disturbed. Eventually, I got up, took a shower and got ready for the charye ritual. While drinking some tea, I watched with great interest as Mrs. Jeon and other relatives arrange the ceremonial table with choice servings of traditional foods, fresh fruits, songpyeon, and other holiday treats. Meanwhile, the patriarch (male leader of the family) set up the ancestral records and accessories.

Then, all the females left the room, and the family patriarch, along with the older males entered. Once each of the male members took their places, the family patriarch poured juice and traditional wine into small ceramic cups, picked up an implement, hit it against one of the metal bowls, and bowed repeatedly in front of the table. The other men joined him in bowing, and the same actions were repeated at least three times.

Then the patriarch signaled to the older women to open all the doors of the home, signaling the ancestors’ spirits to enter. This was followed by other rites performed along with more bowing. Meanwhile, all the occupants of the home waited in complete silence, with a respectful posture. After another bowing session, the patriarch went outside, accompanied by the other men. A final moment of silence was observed by everyone present, a courteous gesture to the departing ancestors’ spirits.

Once the moment of silence ended, the patriarch signaled Mrs. Jeon that the rites had ended. With that cue, she went into the room, transferred the foods to the dining room, and beckoned to the family that it’s time to eat. With that, all fifteen of us, guests and relatives, took our places on the living room floor, feasted on the scrumptious servings of beef soup, chapsal (mixed grain rice) jeon, songpyeon, fresh fruits and other holiday treats. The food was so delicious; I ate far more than I was accustomed to, even at my own home.

Feeling my tummy bulging within my belt, I decided to get up and leave the table. Since my friend and the foreign boyfriend had also overindulged, the three of us agreed that taking a brisk walk was a great way to aid the digestion process. As the family patriarch and other men prepared to visit the tomb site to conduct seongmyo (ancestral memorial) ceremony, a few the younger family members decided to join us on the walk. We walked around the neighborhood at a leisurely pace for about thirty minutes.

When we returned, we played some traditional harvest moon games together. To my dismay, just when I was thinking about taking a nap, another meal was served. So out of courtesy to my host, I heartily enjoyed her succulent provisions. Again, my tummy began to bulge within my belt. This time, I had to loosen the buckle, and moved it up one notch. After that meal, another walk seemed like a pleasant holiday ritual to ensure proper digestion.

This pattern continued throughout my three day stay. Each time I ate, it became even harder to limit my portions. Amazingly, Mrs. Jeon expertly prepared each mini banquet to please every palate, and satisfy all our holiday cravings. During that visit, I ate so much food, I actually gained a few pounds. Olleh!

Thankfully, holidays are not exclusively for any particular social group. Parents and children, older folks and youngsters, students and teachers, managers and workers appreciate the free-time that holidays afford. Naturally, long holidays are the most desirable. However, long or short, most holidays are cheerfully received by people of all ages.

Editor’s Note

The writer currently teaches Communicative English at Hankyong National University. He has also authored a forthcoming book “A Few Choice Words.” He can be reached at cuforbes@gmail.com



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Carlton U. Forbes, who serves as staff writer & columnist for The Seoul Times, currently teaches Global English at Dongyang University in S. Korea's Yeongju City. Among the books he authored are "A Few Choice Words" and "ESL Teaching Aids." A resident of S. Korea for over a decade Prof. Forbes can be reached at cuforbes@gmail.com

 

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