Has it really been a week since my last post? Time flies. Even if you’re not having fun, seemingly.
Not that this week hasn’t had its fun moments. But all in all, I am quite ready to embrace my 4-day holiday weekend thanks to 추석 (Chuseok, the Korean holiday similar to American Thanksgiving). Chuseok itself falls on a Sunday this year, but the government has graciously extended the holiday through Monday and Tuesday so everyone can have some time off of work.
Essentially, Chuseok is a harvest festival celebrated in fall; the date changes depending on the full moon and the lunar calendar (that is a very unscientific explanation… you can look it up if you’re interested). On Chuseok, Korean families come together and hold a memorial ceremony. A vast amount of traditional food (notably including songpyeon, a chewy rice cake with a sweet filling) is prepared and arranged on a table, and then the family members bow to show respect to their ancestors in a ceremony called 제사 (Jesa). Afterwards, they eat the food together. This is followed sometimes by visiting family members’ graves, sometimes by drinking alcohol, sometimes by playing traditional games like 윷놀이 (Yutnori), and sometimes by going out to a park or hiking spot. Or sometimes all of the above.
I’m no expert on Chuseok, but one of my co-teachers (the awesome one) generously invited me to visit her house today to observe the ceremony and join her family for the big meal. I’m so thankful that she gave me the opportunity to experience Chuseok almost as if I were part of a Korean family.
So, today I arrived at her family’s apartment bright and early at 9 a.m.
I was ushered in warmly by my co-teacher and her husband and greeted by her two kids, one girl and one boy, who are very shy but very cute. She had told me the other day, “I’ll make my children wear hanbok.” Haha. So they were indeed wearing hanbok, but my co-teacher and her hubby were dressed quite casually. I believe this varies depending on the family, as some dress up in suits and dresses, others wear hanbok, and others are a bit more laidback in their dress.
Their apartment was lovely and spacious (I personally was particularly envious of their huge front windows that let in oodles of natural sunlight). The kitchen counters were a comfortingly messy hodgepodge of kimchi, pots, plates, and cooking utensils.
In the main room, my co-teacher had set up the memorial table with all the required traditional foods, including specific fruits like apples and persimmons, dried fish, bulgogi (sweet beef), chestnuts, fried fish cakes, and the rice cakes called songpyeon. At the back are the two candles and the 신위 (shinwui), the memorial tablet with the names of the deceased ancestors. (I’ve read that jesa typically honors no farther back than grandparents, which in this case would be my co-teacher’s parents-in-law’s grandparents I believe.) In front of the table is a teapot of hot water, a bowl filled with sand, and incense used for the ceremony.
Shortly after my arrival, my co-teacher’s parents-in-law and brother-in-law arrived and the jesa ceremony began. It was less solemn than I expected in that my co-teacher and her mother-in-law continued to talk and prepare food in the kitchen area while the men and children performed the ceremony just a few feet away in the living area. I sat on a chair and watched, trying to walk the narrow line between genuine interest and weird staring.
Don’t hold me to an exact understanding of all the details of the ceremony, but from what I observed, there is a very meticulous set of steps. First of all, the front door to the apartment was open the whole time, apparently to allow the ancestors’ spirits to enter (every door I passed by in the apartment building was open).
My CT’s father-in-law began by kneeling in front of the table, with the candles and incense lit. His son poured the hot water (or maybe it was alcohol?) into one of the wooden cups, and the father-in-law circled it three times around the incense before pouring it into the sand in the bowl. Everyone did a traditional bow (meaning kneeling on the floor, placing both hands out in front, then touching the head down to the hands). This process was repeated multiple times, occasionally switching who was doing the circling around the incense and who was pouring. I know that each step has its own significance, so you can read more about that here if you like.
Eventually the candles were extinguished by my CT’s son, signifying the end of the ceremony. The whole thing only took about 20 minutes, maybe less. I know some families can take 1 or 2 hours, so perhaps my CT’s family only observes the bare essentials of the ceremony whereas others go in more depth. (I’ve read that there is a part where the family is supposed to exit the room to allow the ancestors to eat, and then return – a bit reminiscent of inviting Elijah the Prophet to the Jewish Seder, right? But anyway, my CT’s family did not do this.)
In spite of the incense and the bowing, for most families there is no religious significance behind this. It is not worshiping their ancestors. In fact, interestingly, it seems that most Koreans who are atheist/agnostic, Buddhist, or Catholic perform jesa (Pope Pius XII lifted the ban on ancestral rites in the 1930s, allowing Catholics to participate in this type of ceremony), while most Korean Christians/Protestants do not.
Anyway, after the ceremony, the rest of the food was quickly brought over to the table, which was transformed into a dining table. We sat on the floor around it and ate all the foods I mentioned above plus more, including a delicious traditional beef soup called 육개장 (yukgaejang), made by my CT’s mother-in-law. (Who was delighted that I found it tasty.)
They were all very kind and welcoming, treating me like part of the family. The in-laws couldn’t speak English, but showed a quiet hospitality anyway. They departed around 11 a.m. because they were tired, and my CT then suggested going to her own parents’ home in the apartment building across the street.
The atmosphere when we entered the apartment reminded me of my own family’s holidays – noisy and active and high-spirited. They couldn’t top my family’s decibel level, of course, but that would be hard to do. My CT’s mom was a tiny ball of energy just like her daughter, and welcomed me in – “Hello! Hello! Ssit down!” (I spelled that with a double ‘s’ but actually it sounds more like ‘sh*t down’, a common Korean pronunciation error. So cute.) She can’t speak much English but is very eager to do so. “Fruit? Coppee?” (coffee)
So we sat together – my CT’s parents, her uncle and aunt-in-law, two cousins, her brother, and her 5-year-old nephew – and drank coffee and ate fruit. Again, I felt welcome and accepted like part of the family.
They wanted to go to a park or something, and they decided on Mt. Apsan, the mountain which overlooks the entire city of Daegu. We piled into two cars and drove there, then walked up to the Buddhist temple in the mountain. My CT’s parents are practicing Buddhists, so they entered the temple to bow many times. My CT is more of a casual practitioner, it seems, so she went in to bow also but doesn’t do so often. Her husband is not a follower of Buddhism, so he stayed outside with me. I appreciated the fact that while there was an open invitation to go in and participate, there was also zero pressure to do so.
Then we rode the cable car up to the peak and drank 막걸리 (makgeolli, rice wine which is always consumed out of golden metal bowls rather than cups) and ate 파전 (pajeon, the pancake made with green onions) at a small restaurant there. We took pictures on the observatory deck, and then eventually made our way back down.
At this point it was 2 p.m., and my CT observed that I must be tired and offered to drop me off at home on their way back. Her mom apparently wanted to continue on to another park, and while I truly enjoyed their kindness and warmth, I was also a bit exhausted and accepted the offer of being dropped off at home. She didn’t let me go home empty-handed – her Chuseok gift for me was a set of shampoos and soaps. So sweet!
So, that was my Chuseok experience. I’m so grateful for my co-teacher’s hospitality and her family’s kindness.