Chuseok (Kor. 추석, Chin. 秋夕) refers to the harvest festival celebrated on the fifteenth day (the full moon day) of the eighth lunar month. Chuseok literally means “autumn evening,” and may be understood to mean the “autumn evening with the brightest moon.” This holiday is also known as Gabae (Kor. 가배, Chin. 嘉俳), Gabaeil (Kor. 가배일, Chin. 嘉俳日), Gawi (Kor. 가위), Hangawi (Kor. 한가위), Jungchu (Kor. 중추, Chin. 仲秋), Jungchujeol (Kor. 중추절, Chin. 仲秋節) or Jungchugajeol (Kor. 중추가절, Chin. 仲秋佳節). While Gawi and Hangawi are vernacular terms, Gabae is of Sino-Korean origin.
In traditional agrarian society, the Chuseok season was a time for farmers to relax and enjoy the fruits of their hard labor. According to a proverb, “A farmer in May is a philosopher in August;” this saying refers to the fact that farmers have no respite in May but can rest in August. When the season’s toil is over and the pace slows down in rural communities, farmers can enjoy their free time. Another Korean proverb states, “I wish every day was neither more nor less than Gawi Day;” the name of the holiday references the happiest time of year.
Chuseok is also a season of thanksgiving as Koreans observe charye (Kor. 차례, Chin. 茶禮, lit. tea offering ceremony, an ancestral memorial service) at home and visit their ancestral graves. Usually people visit these ancestral grave sites several days before Chuseok in order to remove weeds that have grown there over the summer. The day of the festival starts with preparing an offering table with newly-harvested rice and seasonal foods for the ancestral memorial service. The offerings must include bite-size rice cakes stuffed with sweet fillings known as songpyeon (Kor. 송편, Chin. 松餠, lit. pine needle rice cake). Families proceed to the ancestral tombs after this memorial service. The tradition of worshipping four generations of ancestors during the charye ceremony dates back to the late Joseon period (17th century - 1910).
A ritual known as olbe simni (Kor. 올베심리) is observed on Chuseok Day in Jeolla Province. The name of the custom refers to olbyeo cheonsin (Kor. 올벼천신, Chin. -薦新), literally “offering new crops to the gods’ altar.” The word olbyeo refers to rice that has been harvested prematurely. Farmers in this region select nearly ripe rice plants, grill the collected grains in a cauldron, and dry them before cooking. Along with rice, offerings placed on the ancestral altar during the olbe simni include dried yellow corvine fish, young chicken, early white radishes, and wine. The food is consumed by family members at the conclusion of the service. The doorposts and pillars of the house where the olbe simni takes place are usually decorated with bundles of rice, millet, and Indian millet plants.
People of South Chungcheong Province practice a custom known as banbogi (Kor. 반보기, lit. meeting at the midpoint) on Chuseok. The tradition consists of spending half a day with relatives and friends, and the name’s origin refers to the mid-point at which relatives meet between their respective villages. Banbogi is an occasion for farmers to learn news of their relatives with whom they have not had a chance to see over the busy summer period.
Songpyeon is the most representative dish of Chuseok, just as tteokguk (Kor. 떡국, lit. rice-cake soup) is for the Lunar New Year. Other dishes prepared for the ancestral memorial service on Chuseok include toranguk (Kor. 토란국, Chin. 土卵-, taro soup), hwayangjeok (Kor. 화양적, Chin. 花陽炙, skewers with young mushrooms, balloon flower roots and beef), and nureumjeok (Kor. 누름적, skewers with flour- or egg-coated vegetables and meat). All of these dishes are eaten by family members and shared with relatives and neighbors after the memorial service.
Historically Koreans tried to predict the harvest for the coming season based on the weather at Chuseok, along with the weather at the Lunar New Year, and at the first full moon of the year. Rain on Chuseok was seen as an omen of poor crop yields, and was particularly unfavorable for barley farming the following spring. Koreans also believed that if the moon on Chuseok night was completely enshrouded by clouds, it meant that frogs would not be able to produce eggs, hares would not conceive their young, and buckwheat and other grains would not flourish. Skies that were too clear were also considered a bad sign for barley farming. The ideal weather on Chuseok was a partly cloudy sky.
The full moon in the agrarian society was an important symbol of prosperity and fertility, and the full moon on Chuseok was associated with ripe plants full of grain. The alternating lunar phases – from the waxing crescent moon to the full moon, and from the waning crescent moon to the new waxing crescent moon – were considered to be a vital cycle similar to the farming cycle. Accordingly, the vitality of the universe was thought to reach a pinnacle on the day of the full moon. Consequently, the day of the full moon in the middle of the harvest season, Chuseok, had a special significance for farming communities.