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Chuseok, season of family reunions and harvest celebrations
Chuseok, which literally means "autumn evening," is one of two major traditional holidays in Korea along with Seol, the lunar New Year's Day.
While Seol is significant as the start of the year, Chuseok, the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, is the harvest season after the harsh toiling of farming in spring and summer. So Korean people took this time to thank their ancestors for providing them with a good harvest of rice and fruit.
During the Chuseok holidays a great many people take long trips to their hometowns for family reunions and to pay homage to ancestors.
The celebration actually starts the night before Chuseok and ends the day after the holiday. Thus, many families take three days off from work to get together with family and friends.
The practice of celebrating Chuseok dates back to early Silla Dynasty. In the year 32 A.D., King Yuri of Silla ordered women from six local towns in Gyeongju, the capital of the ancient kingdom, to be divided into two teams and the two teams headed by two princesses to compete in weaving for a period of one year, from July 15 to Aug. 14 the next year.
The two princesses organized their groups and worked very hard to win the competition. The losing team would have to prepare and serve dinner and drinks to the winning side. Still, everyone enjoyed the feast, as well as celebrated with songs and dance, with just one exception -- the losing side had to sing a traditional song, "Hoeso, hoeso." The song was said to have a very sad tune and sorrowful meaning.
Chuseok is also called "Hangawi," which means a great day in the middle of August.
On the morning of Chuseok, people offer cooked rice, wine and "songpyeon" (rice cakes), all made of new rice, to their ancestors to thank them for their blessings of a good harvest. The year's new fruit and farm crops are also served.
The celebration, however, starts with a family get-together one day before Chuseok when family members make songpyeon.
Following the early morning ritual for the ancestors, the family visits their ancestors' tombs to pay respect and repair any damages.
In the evening, girls and women wear their favorite hanbok, the traditional Korean costume, and dance under the bright moon in a large circle. The men play games and sing songs as Americans do on Thanksgiving.
Having fun is the most significant theme of Chuseok day.
Folk games such as "ssirum," Korean-style wrestling, and a tug-of-war were held during the day, while moon-greeting and the "ganggangsullae" dance are typical on Chuseok evening.
People believed that fair weather on Chuseok night heralds a good harvest for the following year, while a rainy Chuseok means a poor crop. If the moon is hidden by clouds and cannot be seen, there will be poor crop for barley and buckwheat, rabbits will be sterile and frogs will not produce eggs.
Ganggangsullae (circle dance)
Groups of girls form a circle and start moving clockwise and then counterclockwise around a solo singer who dances and sings in the center of the circle. The dance starts slowly and gradually accelerates to a rapid whirling climax. The girl in the center sings the lyrics while the other girls sing the refrain, "ganggangsullae," which means "watch the surroundings."
There is no clear record of the beginning of the dance. It is, however, presumed that the dance originated during the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592 when Adm. Yi Sun-shin ordered the women of Jindo, South Jeolla Province, to dance around fires in the evening to make the Japanese invaders believe there were plenty of soldiers in the area. The practice of singing and dancing under the full moon has been passed from generation to generation in the southern coastal areas of Korea from primitive times. It has been designated Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 8.
Songpyeon are half-moon-shaped rice cakes filled with sesame seeds or chestnut paste steamed over a layer of pine needles, which gives them the fragrant smell of fresh pine trees. They used to be made into various shapes with the participation of family members and were often exchanged between neighbors. They are eaten on Chuseok and other festive days.
Unlike China's moon cake, which is round and also eaten on Chuseok in China, Korean people made songpyeon in the half-moon shape because they regarded the half moon a symbol of expansion and development, while the full moon no longer expands, but has to wane.