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Death around the world: Chuseok, South Korea

Chuseok candles lit in offering to those who have died. Photo by Jrwooley6

*Chuseok candles lit in offering to those who have died. Photo by Jrwooley6*

Like many countries around the world, traditional Korean culture has a festival dedicated to the worship of ancestors. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Korean Thanksgiving’, Chuseok, also called Hangawi, is a three-day festival that's one of the most widely-celebrated holidays in South Korea. Traditionally held to give thanks to dead ancestors for the year’s harvest through rituals and offerings, Chuseok is a time for joyful family gatherings, grave-tending, eating and drinking. A moveable feast, it takes place in September or October.

Pre-dating the division of the country, Chuseok is celebrated in both North and South Korea, although traditions differ between them.

A cemetery in South Korea after Chuseok. Photo by Jrwooley6

Like Qingming in China and Obon in Japan, the festival of Chuseok is a time to gather with family and return to loved ones’ graves. Visiting family tombs and gravesites is an important part of the festival and is called Seongmyo. Families will tidy and clean the grave and may place offerings of flowers and food on it for the spirits of their ancestors. This cleaning ritual is known as Beolcho.

Traditionally, Koreans believe that when someone dies, their spirit stays on earth to protect and watch over their ancestors. Chuseok is a time to thank them for that protection.

An offering altar during Chuseok. Photo by Namwon030

On the main day of Chuseok, Koreans will perform a ritual in the morning called Charye to remember loved ones who have died. A kind of memorial service, Charye involves setting up an altar, laden with freshly harvested fruit and vegetables, other types of food, joss sticks and candles.

The offerings for Charye are usually arranged in a specific way. For example, rice and soup are placed on the north side of the table, while fruit and vegetables are placed to the south. Meat is served on the west, while rice cakes and alcoholic drinks such as soju are placed on the east.

During Chuseok, a special rice cake called Songpyeon is made and offered to ancestors. Usually shaped like a crescent moon or oval, Songpyeon are filled with a chestnut and red bean paste and come in different colours.

Traditional Songpyeon rice cakes. Photo by Korean Culture and Information Service

Chuseok isn’t just a time for remembrance - it’s also a time for joy and celebration now that the harvest is complete. Across the three days of the festival, communities come together to enjoy folk games and traditional entertainment, which can vary from region to region.

One tradition is the Ganggangsullae dance, which dates back to 5,000 years ago in the province of Jeollanam-do. Originally performed exclusively by women, dancers come together under the light of a full moon to dance, with no music or singing to accompany them. It was thought that the dance would bring about a bountiful harvest and please the Sun, Moon and Earth.

Women performing the Ganggangsullae dance. Photo by photoren

Other folk traditions associated with Chuseok include wrestling, tug-of-war competitions involving the whole village, and card games.

Like so many festivals celebrating those who have died, Chuseok combines respectful remembrance of loved ones with joyous thanksgiving. It’s a colourful three days, filled with eating, drinking, dancing and playing, combining the cycle of the seasons with the cycle of life.

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