Tomorrow marks the beginning of a major lunar festival all over Asia… in China and Japan, as far as I know, the holiday is the same as in Korea. It’s what is called in Korean “Chuseok,” or in English “The Harvest Moon Festival”.

Koreans will tell you it’s the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving, but that’s a slight misrepresentation. I think it’s kind of like Thanksgiving in that there are tons of food, lots of family gatherings, and people traveling to their “hometowns” from all over the country. However, it’s somewhat more like Thanksgiving on the scale of Christmas and Easter and a few Labour Days all thrown in together.

If you take the train during this time (as I have during previous years) you will experience claustraphobia that you simply cannot imagine. Except for one very short LRT (Light Rail Transit) ride that I took in Edmonton at 2am on New Years Day, I have never ever seen any enclosed space with as many people crammed into it as I did a train during the Chuseok season. There is usually newspaper spread all over the floor, and people populate the aisles, sitting on the newspaper. Every available space is taken, including the 1.5 foot-wide space behind the last two seats in the car. People also sit on the armrests of your seat, and at one point I basically had someone’s grandma in my lap… I offered her my seat but she vehemently refused it.

The overhead compartments are stuffed full of presents, like gift boxes of shampoo, toilet paper, liquor, meat, fruit, and anything else you might imagine. Those few hours on the train are a little crazy… but it’s better than the highways. The highways are jammed from one end to the other, especially going outward from Seoul. To go to Seoul is easy, at the beginning of Chuseok, and leaving Seoul is easy after… but if you end up in the main flow of traffic, leaving Seoul at the beginning of the holiday or returning at the end, you’re liable to spend a whole day in a traffic jam… a trip that’s normally three hours long can stretch to eight or ten hours, or even more. This is because everyone goes to their “hometown” for Chuseok. I have friends from a small town going to an even smaller town to celebrate, this year.

What do people do to celebrate? Well, there are several different things that I probably don’t know about, but the important ones are these:

  • They perform a memorial ceremony for the dead. This usually involves bringing food to the grave site of the most recently departed direct ancestor (such as one’s parent, in some cases), and I think there’s also a ceremonial meal held at the home in some cases. The family I was with mainly at at home, but performed a ceremony at the grave. Food was set out, the men (including me) went about stomping the grass flat around the graves to improve the view enjoyed by the ancestors, and then we all ate the food that the spirits of the ancestors had supposedly come and partaken of. Except for the random bits of food that were chartiably thrown to the left and right of the gravesite (for “the hungry beggar ghosts”, meaning those who lacked a family and thus would enjoy no ceremonial meal) it was important that we eat all of the food. The children of the family poured some liquor onto the graves, to quest the spirits’ thirst. And then the family bowed to the dead ancestors… I think men the men bowed twice and women three times.
  • Making certain special foods in the home. The one I helped make was called song pyeon, and it’s a small morsel of sweet glutinous ricecake. Mine were all misshapen, but regardless of the shape they tasted great. I think you can buy song pyeon anytime, but it’s something many people make by hand especially on this occasion.
  • Eating like mad. There is so much amazing food around, it’s very obvious that this is a harvest festival. It’s not hard to imagine people a hundred or two hundred years ago feasting at this time of year, knowing that the food would not keep through the coming winter, remembering the hunger of February and March. No matter whose house you go to, there’s always food around, food being pulled out and put onto a table in front of you, food food food. And it’s all good, even the octopus soup for breakfast and the fish noodle stew and other things you’ve maybe never had before (at least, I never had).

There’s probably a lot more to this holiday I don’t know about. But this is the basic gist of it. The nice thing? I’m working in a University, so this weekend is a 5-day weekend for me. Granted, most of my Korean friends are busy as hell Wednesday and Thursday (the days of the festival) and it is going to be unbelievably difficult to find somewhere to go for dinner or a beer during those two days – though, like with Christmas at home, the movie theaters are open… everything else, however, is closed because everyone is gone to their hometowns. But, it’ll be okay, and it is nice to have the time off!

Time off? Wait… there’s already appointments on Friday, Saturday, and a band practice on Sunday! Time off? Uh… oh yeah… time off work, I mean.

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