If there’s one holiday I love from my homeland (the United States), it’s Thanksgiving. During that wondrous four-day weekend late in November, my family would gather around the table, share in a grand meal, and enjoy time with one another that we rarely see since dispersing for our chosen careers.
The main meal would typically be prepared by the host family (my mother, brothers, and I would rotate hosting duties), while side dishes would be supplied by guests. Since our family always welcomed those unable to travel home for this holiday, we’d usually have a few “stragglers” with us, helping them enjoy the start to the Holiday Season.
Dinner would take place in the early afternoon and feature a large roasted turkey, delicious stuffing, and fantastic garlic mashed potatoes. Following the gorging that took place in the dining room, we’re retire to the TV room and watch the football games that aired that day. In later years, we forewent the televised games and hooked up our favorite gaming system and played several iterations of electronic combat scenarios until dessert was served.
It was always a fun-filled day that brought us together as a family. We appreciated everyone’s efforts in preparing the meal and made sure that everyone spent time with one another, since it could be an entire year before our eyes would gaze upon one another. It’s for this reason, we started a tradition, of writing down what we were thankful for on a tablecloth… something my family still does to this day.
Now that I am half a world away, I no longer have the opportunity to partake in such celebrations with my family. While saddened by this, I’m by no means left alone, for just around the corner is Chuseok (추석), the fall harvest holiday – that many refer to as the “Korean Thanksgiving.” The holiday doesn’t have a fixed date on the solar calendar, but always takes place on 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. This sometimes means the three-day holiday can fall on a weekend or during the week (which is what I prefer, since I then earn fives days off). Other Asian cultures also celebrate similar harvest holidays during the same time, and their periods of rest range from the same three-day window to a week or more!
Being an expat in Korea means that I don’t have family to travel to on the Peninsula or ancestral graves to tend and pay respect to, but that doesn’t mean that I’m left out of the experience, either. What it does mean is that I am able to enjoy the amazing gift sets laid out at shopping malls and grab great deals on fruit, household products, and my favorite: coffee. In the past, most stores would close throughout the duration of the Chuseok holiday, but now many are open during the three-day period. Some do close on the second of the “red days,” which is something I’d like to see more of done in the United States, since I think it better promotes family and community.
Like in the United States, many travel home during the Chuseok holiday. This means that the roads and rails are extremely congested, making routine 5-hours bus rides last up to 15 hours or more in some of the worse extreme cases I’ve seen. Once in their hometowns, Korean families spend time tending to their ancestral graves and performing rites. Rather than try to get a trip in myself, I stay at home with my friends and we partake in a local Chuseok celebration. Just as my family does in the US, our friends invite my wife and I into their homes for dinner and fun with their family, so we aren’t alone on this time to usher in a great harvest and feelings of community.
We each bring dishes to share in a potluck-style event and try our hands at making songpyeon (송편) – a crescent-shaped rice cake that is delicious. Since many Koreans cook bulgogi (불고기) or samgyeopsal (삼겹살) as the main dish for dinner, I’m still able to get my fill of meat on this fantastic autumn holiday. After dinner, we usually imbibe in various adult beverages and play games ranging from my favorite (Go-Stop) to tug-of-war competitions.
Thanksgiving celebrations, whatever their names may be, or whenever their dates occur, are really about joining together and expressing thanks to your family, friends, and the Earth for giving us what we need to survive. If you’re new to Korea and are preparing to experience your first Chuseok, I hope yours will be as grand as mine have been in the past.