Monday, September 15, 2008

Happy Chuseok!

One of Korea's biggest two holidays created an eerily quiet, yet pleasant atmosphere around Seoul last weekend. Chuseok (추 석) is Korea's Thanksgiving, a harvest festival celebrated every year on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, or September 14th this year according to the Gregorian calendar. Nearly everyone in the country gets vacation on Chuseok, as well as one day off before and after the holiday. Like American Thanksgiving, Chuseok is a time for food and family, but Korea's holiday includes rituals honoring ancestors. Most Koreans head to their hometowns (wives usually go to their husband's) where they visit the family burial site and make edible offerings to deceased loved ones. Festivities begin early in the morning with a massive feast, followed by ancestral rites and then quality time with family. One Chuseok hostess told me her family spent over $1,000 (1,000,000 Korean 원) on beef, pork, and all the trimmings to feed her family of nine.

Songpyeon. Like candy canes to Christmas, these crescent-shaped rice cakes stuffed with bean or sesame seed paste are a staple Chuseok treat. The security guard at my apartment building surprised me Saturday with this offering.

For a foreigner like me, Chuseok offers a great opportunity to wander the city without the typical hustle and bustle and pushing and shoving. No craning your neck to spot the one open seat on the subway. No armpits in your face on the bus. The Korea Expressway Corporation estimated nearly 400,000 vehicles full of holiday travelers would be returning to Seoul Monday alone, which means the city's population must have slimmed by millions over the weekend. Many businesses were closed Friday through Monday. Most of Korea's ubiquitous 김 밥 천 국 restaurants, typically open around the clock, closed their doors for three days straight. I hate to admit that Mickey D's saved me from starvation on Friday night.

It's amazing how much I crave kimbap when I can't have it! Most Kimbap Cheonguks were closed for three days straight.

I anticipate there will be plenty of exhausted ladies around the office tomorrow. Korean women frequently bemoan the holidays, since the brunt of cooking and cleaning falls upon female shoulders. Women who happen to be married to a family's eldest son have it the worst, since they usually end up hosting the rest of the family. Several media reports leading up to the holiday offered women tips on how to weather the stress of the festivities. The good news this year is that since the holiday fell on Sunday, there were just three days of official holiday recognition. When Chuseok is on a Tuesday or Thursday, it means nothing but cooking and cleaning for many women for five days straight.

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