Korean Thanksgiving

Chusok, sometimes Romanized as Chuseok, is often called Korean Thanksgiving. It is one of Korea’s main holidays, and is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eighth month by the Lunar Calendar. This Harvest Moon Festival is over 2,000 years old, and is a traditional time for Koreans to thank their ancestors for the year’s harvest. It is celebrated over a three day period, and viewing the full moon is a feature in the evenings.

I remember my first Chusok in the 1980s when a Korean family invited me and a couple of friends to Chusok dinner. I remember the one thing that stands out for all of the Chusok dinners I’ve enjoyed since, plates and bowels full of great food. For anyone who enjoys Korean food, Chusok and New Year’s are the holidays you want to attend in Korea. The food is outstanding!

Chusok and New Year’s are also the most popular holidays in Korea, and unfortunately, that means unbelievable traffic. I’ve visited during the holiday and traveled with in-laws to our family gathering, and the traffic is definitely one of the down sides. Highways and roads are jammed as people journey to visit families and honor the graves of their ancestors.

This remembering of ancestors is an important tradition of the Chusok holiday. Food is offered during a memorial rite (jesa) which is accompanied by a deep bow to the floor (from kneeling position). Depending on each families religious and other beliefs, the ceremony may be different. However, regardless of those beliefs, Chusok is celebrated with a family feast. And I’ll admit, when my wife and her sisters get together in the kitchen to prepare for Chusok, all thoughts of diet go out the window. Just like the American tradition of stuffing oneself on Thanksgiving in November, I’ve stuffed myself during Chusok just as full. One of the special foods prepared for Chusok is songpyun. These are special rice cakes that are molded in a shape that looks like a half moon and are stuffed with sesame seeds or chestnuts sweetened with honey. They are an excellent desert or snack. Some of the main foods served are galbi (grilled ribs) and or bulgogi (marinated beef), chapchae (clear noodles), saengsun jun (battered and fried fish), and kimchi of course. And yes, I love kimchi. If you have only tried the kind in a jar at American supermarkets, you are doing yourself a disservice. Good kimchi is excellent, and there are many varieties. There are many other side dishes and foods on the table, including soups, vegetables, fruits, and much more.

Besides the great food, I like the holiday for the meaning behind it. Just like the meaning behind American Thanksgiving (That I’m afraid some people forget), the Korean holiday focuses on some of the most important aspects of Korean culture. These include family, respect for elders and ancestors, and the sharing of communal food and drink. Besides eating together, families play games and have the opportunity to catch up with one another. Often traditional games are played by family members and outside festivities are visited. It is a great holiday to celebrate family and give thanks.