November 21, 2012

Korean Thanksgiving: Chuseok History (Part 1)

It’s Thanksgiving time in the United States again, and I am preparing activities for my students about the American version of Thanksgiving. Yes, I said the American version of Thanksgiving. When I say version I should also say that I don’t plan to bring up the plight of the Native Americans before and after the Pilgrim Thanksgiving, but that is something people should know the truth about. Nor do I plan on bringing up the fact that main course of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving was actually deer and not turkey.

What I am talking about is that most countries or cultures have their own versions of Thanksgiving. Harvest festivals have been around for centuries, and are known as something different in every culture. In Korea, the harvest festival is known as Chuseok, or Hangawi from the old Korean language.

The date of Chuseok is based on the lunar calendar and falls on the 15th day of the 8th month on the Autumn Equinox. Since Chuseok is based on the lunar calendar, and not the western Gregorian, calendar the date changes from year to year. Usually Chuseok happens in the middle or later part of September, but sometimes it can happen in early September or early October. Chuseok is a family holiday, and families get together and go back to their hometowns, where they offer tribute and respect to their ancestors.

A lot of places are closed on Chuseok, and that makes it tougher to get around since there are less taxi drivers around. For many people as well as my school, it accounts for three days off. There is the actual day of Chuseok off, plus the day before and the day after.

The question is how did Chuseok start? Many people including Korean children know the tall tale of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans sitting down and having a peaceful feast.

There are a few theories as to how Chuseok started. The theory that goes back furthest in time is that when Korea was a shamanistic country, they offered tributes of the harvest to their deity and to their ancestors. As a historian, it is very easy for me to believe that Chuseok originated as a religious ceremony or ritual.

The second theory is that Chuseok came from the Shilla dynasty, and it started as a month-long weaving contest between two teams. After a month of weaving the team that had woven the most cloth was declared the winner. The winning team would be served a large feast, and the losing team served them.

The third theory is that Chuseok was started by the Shilla having a different party. It has been claimed that the Shilla won a great victory over their rival kingdom of the Baekje. In celebration, they had weaving competitions as well as wrestling and archery competitions. The Shilla archers were supposedly very highly skilled and expert archers, but I digress. All of these could have combined overtime and transformed the holiday into the Chuseok it is today.

The Good: Even though our countries can be vastly different, taking time during the fall and spending time with family and friends is an important thing to do.

Image Credit: grafics / Shutterstock

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