As Sua Kim (10) walked through the doors of her grandmother’s traditional Korean-style house in South Korea at age seven, she was immediately overwhelmed by the loud chatter of many conversations between all of her relatives, creating a memory vivid enough for Sua to remember to this day. Although she was overwhelmed by the gathering, Sua felt at home, where she was surrounded by family members whom she had not seen since moving to the U.S. when she was three.
Sua’s family was gathered to celebrate Chuseok, a celebration observed by Koreans on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar on the full moon. This year, Chuseok fell on Oct. 3. According to Angela Kang, the Public Relations Director at the House of Korea at Balboa Park, Chuseok, also known as Korean Thanksgiving Day, is “one of the most important and festive holidays of the year,” and is when Koreans visit their ancestral hometowns to eat a feast of traditional Korean food with their families, honor their ancestors and celebrate a good harvest. Family members often gather at one member’s home for a few nights to celebrate, as it usually takes time for everyone to get to the same place at the same time, according to Simon Kim (12), who last celebrated traditional Chuseok in Korea when he was seven years old.
“There’s a lot of traffic at that time [of Chuseok],” Simon said. “Everyone’s moving throughout the country to meet their relatives.”
Chuseok, according to popular belief, originated from gabae, which was the reign of the third king of the kingdom of Silla 2,000 years ago, when Korean Thanksgiving was a weaving contest between two teams in which the team who had woven more cloth at the end of a month won a feast from the other team. Its origins also are related to its traditional emphasis on the celebration of harvests.
“Many scholars also believe Chuseok may originate from ancient shamanistic celebrations of the harvest moon,” Kang said. “New harvests are offered to local deities and ancestors, which means Chuseok may have originated as a worship ritual. In some areas, if there is no harvest, worship rituals are postponed, or in areas with no annual harvest, Chuseok is not celebrated.”
Although Chuseok is celebrated most widely in Korea, as Sua’s family does, Korean people also celebrate it wherever they live in the world, often in various ways.
“Wherever there are Koreans I think they will [celebrate] Chuseok,” Kang said. “We have a good population of Koreans in many different sides of the world … so wherever Korean populations are in the world, they will celebrate Chuseok but in a different way. Some will celebrate more, some will just remember it and make a phone call to their family members in Korea … so I would say that everybody will celebrate at a different level.”
Sua has celebrated Chuseok both in Korea and the U.S., so she has experienced those variations. The most lively celebrations that she remembers, however, all took place in Korea, the most memorable being in her grandmother’s living room with exposed wood beams outlining the curved roof on top of the one-story home. As she prepared the traditional Korean dishes with all her female family members, she listened to both animated conservations between all of the them, and the distinct laughter and chatter between the men. When the meal was ready, Sua and her family sat on cushions around a foldable wooden table in the middle of the living room with each dish in a specific place on the table. As they were surrounded by incense and pictures of their ancestors who had died, they first bowed to acknowledge their ancestors and then began to eat.
Traditionally, the cooking of dishes for Chuseok begins one to two days before the actual night of Chuseok, and the table is set that night as part of the Charye ceremony, when a Korean family’s ancestors are honored by their descendants. The elaborate display of dishes on the table is made to represent the Korean family returning their ancestors’ favors of protection.
“Koreans don’t believe that a person is really dead when they physically die,” Kang said. “They believe their spirits are still alive and protect [their] descendants, so they honor their ancestors by preparing special foods for them.”
Each dish on the Charye ceremony table must also be placed in a certain spot, although the specific location of each food can vary among different families celebrating in different regions.
Other Chuseok activities, according to Jiwoo Kim (10), who celebrated Chuseok in Korea with her family before moving to the U.S. when she was 12, include wearing a hanbok, which is “a traditional Korean dress that’s really long and pretty,” and playing games that are similar to poker and board games.
Since moving to the U.S., Sua and her family still celebrate Chuseok each year, but their experiences are slightly different from those in Korea. Most of the time it is only Sua’s parents and younger brother that she celebrates Chuseok with in their home here, although they still eat a large meal and try to make up for being away from their relatives in Korea by calling or video chatting with them.
Many Korean families who have moved to the U.S. have also noticed the differences between celebrating Chuseok in Korea and in America. One of the more obvious ones is that they are now living in a country where most of the population does not celebrate, or even know about, Chuseok. Their American friends and neighbors celebrate Thanksgiving, which does not focus on honoring one’s ancestors.
“I don’t think [most people in the U.S.] know [Chuseok] that well,” Kang said. “Chuseok is very specific to Korean people, so we don’t really promote Korean Thanksgiving in the U.S., and I believe that’s because there’s a similar concept of [this kind of] holiday in the U.S. already.”
The longer they live in the U.S., however, many families, including Sua’s, have become accustomed to the different cultural environment of the U.S. and have begun celebrating Chuseok to both preserve the tradition of honoring their families and adapting to U.S. culture. Sua and her family incorporate some traditions of Chuseok on Thanksgiving Day in addition to celebrating Chuseok on the day according to the lunar calenda. The happy and bright mood during Chuseok that she experienced in Korea also permeates her U.S. celebration, which made it easy for her to become accustomed to celebrating Chuseok in the U.S. when she first moved here.
Despite the initial challenge of feeling compelled to preserve their Chuseok traditions in a new and unfamiliar country, according to Kang, most Korean families in the U.S. eventually adapt their Chuseok celebrations in a way that allows them to be a part of both U.S. and Korean cultures.
“I think [these families] feel weird [in their] very first years [in the U.S.],” Kang said. “But … at the same time, [these Korean families] also use U.S. Thanksgiving for their family gathering. Having said that, I think they slowly transition to the U.S. culture and keep their own culture [alive].”
For Sua, Chuseok is no longer only about honoring her ancestors and preserving Korean traditions and culture; it has also become a holiday of celebrating her family since being away from them has allowed her to realize their importance to her as the memories of their eating and celebrating Chuseok together in Korea are still deeply ingrained in her. To her, although she no longer lives in Korea and is not able to frequently see her family members, Chuseok allows her to still to feel close to them as they are all celebrating the same holiday at the same time, just in different parts of the world.