After the sad news that my bathroom is disintegrating in London to the tune of a 750 quid fix, I am relieved and happy to report another impending holiday, which starts this weekend. Chuseok is by far the principal and most significant holiday in Korea. It is a time when family members from near and far come together to share food and stories and to give thanks to their ancestors for the abundant harvest. It is a festival that started in ancient times, when Korea was still identified as the kingdom of Silla. The jollity was believed to have been instituted by Silla’s third king, Yuri Park, to celebrate the kingdom’s victory over its adversary the Balhae kingdom, its intention to perform sacrament to the harvest moon. The name, Chuseok, means an autumn night with the best moonlight. The trauma suffered from the email regarding the malfunction of my putrid bathroom, meant that I approached the holiday feeling it was a winter’s night with a dose of hypothermia! Hopefully that emotion will dissipate over the next few days. I live in hope that I can claim something back from Aviva Insurance, we shall see. Otherwise it’s 4 payments of 145 quid which added to management fees and mortgage subsidy makes my Korean adventure the “Cash Cow” for London and my disposable income here will be cut to the bone. I may become a victim of dried squid and octopus though becoming another Korean suicide statistic appears more attractive.
In 2012, Chuseok Day falls on September 30, but the holiday is observed for a total of three days (September 29 – October 1). In essence, Chuseok is a major chance to spend more time is a less-crowded Seoul (my nearest city), given that many Koreans return home, leaving the city attractions comparatively crowd-free. Chuseok is a time when Koreans connect with their pedigree. Customarily, it is cocooned by the autumn colours of late September or early October. Across Korea, trains are jam-packed and traffic gets stuck fast as people take-flight to their hometowns. Some children may dress in hanbok, customary silk clothes. People make merry with lion dances and tug-of-war contests. Live Nong-ak folk music performances coalesce drumming, dancing, and singing.
In their homes, families congregate around the table, which is laden with meats, fish, vegetables, sweet rice, dumplings, and fruit an activity known as Charye. The most unusual Chuseok dish is Songpyeon. It is made from rice powder dough surrounding a sweet paste filling made of sesame, beans, or chestnuts. These are steamed with pine needles, infusing the house with their heady scent. A Korean said “the prettier you make the Songpyeon, the better looking wife or husband you will have. Just a fun superstition. So we all try to make it as pretty as possible into nice balanced half-moon shapes.” They look like beanies to me! Food is vigilantly and beautifully arranged on the family shrine with the intention that the ancestors’ spirits can also take pleasure in the feast.
Afterwards, families climb to hillside graves and pay respects to their ancestors. They tidy the graves, and make offerings of food and drink. They end by bowing in thanks. This service is known as Beolcho.
Also groups of women may link hands in a circle to execute the gangangsulae. They are recreating the story of Korean women who clad as warriors, danced around the mountains in 1592 when the dancers tricked the Japanese invaders into thinking that Korean army was larger than it (in reality) was.
In my opinion travelling along the highways of Korea at this time is, to put it politely, “misguided” unless you are travelling into Seoul early on Saturday, which is my clear intention. Korean’s endure the quadrupled travel time because, well, it’s Chuseok! I admire their stoicism? No, I thinks it’s bonkers.
Actually, to be fair, some Korean’s are dismayed during the holiday. For them, after enduring the exceptional sting of the journey, they must then plot a course through the foreseeable remarks and judgments from their abundant relatives on every facet of their lives, from career and financial well-being to personal relationships. While it may sound dreadful, they don’t have an option. It’s Chuseok!
To me there is a painful dichotomy between tradition and modernity “Gangnam Style” which is similar to the commercialised nature of the Christmas holiday back home. Does tradition mean you have to go into debt to save face or just to show off? The homgenisation of culture or the “americanisation” to some people, means that these traditional festivals have a greater symbolic importance than anything else. I suspect privileged Koreans under 40 use the festival to display their wealth and widen the growing resentment between the “haves” and “have-nots”. Social engineering market economy style.
So how does the commercialisation of Chuseok manifest itself? Koreans last weekend were busy shopping for gifts to share; this was the golden chance for retailers in the country to ensnare those festival spenders. There were a range of offers for their clients, principally timed for the holiday period. “Limited edition” and “special offers for a limited time” proliferate and are calculated to inveigle Koreans to “splash the cash” or in reality, load up the credit cards. Department stores were selling limited edition goods from high-end whiskeys and wines to (for most) affordable gift sets of Spam (yes SPAM!) and cooking oils. Hotels in Korea are also offering special deals so people can experience a five-star hotel at a reasonable price during the holiday season. Along with the usual hotel packages that offer comfortable rooms and quixotic dinners, some hotels added on a special shopping service where you shop online and the pressies are posted back home to save you hauling them. Credit card companies in Korea are using the holiday season to perk up their reputation by providing special services to their customers. Many card companies are offering special discounts or an opportunity to win prizes when their clients swipe their cards.
However, regardless of all the harassment, Chuseok is still a very special time for senior citizens in Korean families. Most of the large-scale merriment may have gone now but, the status of the holidays survives with activities described above. So, if you know any Korean families, wish them speedy travels and a peaceful Chuseok. They’re going to need it. Key aspects of Chuseok are;
- Charye 차례 (an ancestral ritual service)
- Beolcho 벌초 (trimming weeds growing on and around the graves)
- Seongmyo성묘 (visiting ancestral graves and making a formal bow of gratitude)
- Major credit card debt.
- Increased antagonism with family and the “gangnams”.
- Death by traffic jam.
- A break from school punishments and a return to the bosom of the family (for Kids).
- A break from the confucian hierarchies, shambolic planning and failed communication that blight our daily lives (for GET’s)
Being in Seoul I should experience some of the festivities at the Palaces or down by Cheonggyecheon, I’ll review my trip on my return next Thursday but for now Happy Chuseok.