[Holiday History]‘Thanks for the bucket of laundry soap’A box of assorted toothpaste tubes may not be your idea of an ideal birthday gift, but it has long been a classic gift for the Chuseok holiday season in Korea. Chuseok, one of the peninsula’s two biggest holidays along with lunar New Year’s Day, is a time when Koreans exchange a caboodle of goodies, much like Christmas. The right Chuseok present, however, is not a Barbie doll from Santa Claus. Koreans send gift sets, easily available at department stores or giant discount shopping malls, to their acquaintances or relatives to show respect. A set can range from cans of tuna to beef ribs packaged in a posh artificial leather box, depending on how close you are. A cargo of toothpaste is a more frugal choice, usually given to the staff at a big company; it’s instantly recognizable wrappings are now considered more a disgrace than a source of pride.
Receiving many gift sets of luxury beef ribs, on the other hand, is a barometer of a family’s power and influence. But this wasn’t always the case. In the 1960s, the most extravagant gift was a 30-kilogram pack of refined sugar, which cost as much as 3,900 won ($3.20, but very different in today’s money). Popular Chuseok gifts have changed a lot since the 1960s, showing how Korean society has also changed.
After the calamities left by the Korean War, money was tight all over, but nevertheless it was unimaginable to go through a big holiday without giving something. So most people turned to the bare necessities, such as homegrown farm products -- eggs, sticky rice, pork, flour.
But as the 1960s began, exchanging gift sets became an established part of Korean culture, with a standardized list of gift items. Lee Chang-seung, a public relations deputy at Shinsegae Department Store, says that department stores started to promote Chuseok gift items in 1965, when they came up with 96 kinds of gift items. The government in the 1960s promoted three white products -- refined sugar, flour and fabric.
Refined sugar was especially valued. A pack of the brand name Graenyu-Syuga (from Granule Sugar) was a high-class gift item, selling in 6-kilogram packs for 780 won, and 30-kilogram packs at 3,900 won. It was indeed a lavish item only for high society, considering that at the time a 24-bottle case of beer was 2,000 won.
Those who could not afford such a luxury turned to substitutes -- a box of 50 packages of ramen, 30 bars of laundry soap, assorted canned provisions, an ailong (iron), or a kerosene heater. If you gave anything like that these days, people would think you were out of your mind; but back then, they were considered high-quality gift items that people were overjoyed to receive.
Lee Chang-seung points out how the list of favorite gifts mirrors the standard of living of the period. “In the middle of industrialization, it was hard to find convenient industrial products,” he says, “making such products the right kind of dignified gift.”
Koreans saw a visible rise in living standards in the 1970s, spurred by the industrialization of the country. The 1970s was an epoch-making period for the Chuseok gift market, swelling the options to 1,000 kinds of available items, up from 100 in the mid-1960s. The best gift of the ’60s, refined sugar, gave way to light industrial articles, such as a set of plastic bowls or a radio. Another landmark of the 1970s was the diversification of items beyond basic living necessities. Laundry soap sets became too common, so people turned to toiletry sets.
Favorite items for ladies included a set of six pairs of stockings, which cost 1,800 won, or cosmetic sets at 5,000 won (pricey when you consider that a radio from Lucky Geumseong (today’s LG) was only 7,700 won back then.)
Another new option that was quite popular was the 24-bottle case of Coca Cola, which cost 910 won, soon to be replaced by more fanciful drinks like Fanta. Another new beverage, coffee, was also on the rise, creating gift sets of instant coffee, powdered cream and cups. According to Mr. Lee, the assorted coffee set was the third-most-popular item at the Shinsegae Department Store during the mid-1970s.
Enthusiasm over education affected Chuseok as well, with another new hit gift set of stationery goods -- the luxury pencil set, with a dozen of the highestquality pencils costing 300 won. Another posh present for kids was a school bag, 3,000 won for a boy’s and 3,200 won for a girl’s. The thing that made kids’ jump for joy, however, was a box of assorted cookies and sweets; it’s almost a nostalgia item now.
Many of those hot gift sets back in the 1970s have faded, but one that’s still going strong in the 21st century is the towel set, beloved as a down-to-earth classic.
The 1970s is especially marked in Korean history for the rapid development of electronics industry and it’s no wonder that Chuseok gifts began to include electronic goods -- televisions, rice cookers, vacuum bottles and gas ranges.
Black-and-white television sets especially grew in demand in 1976, sparked by tremendously popular television dramas. A 12-inch television cost 65,700 won and a 14-inch one was 78,200 won -- an astronomical amount of money back then.
If the 1960s had foodstuffs and the 1970s had daily commodities, the 1980s showed more diversity. By then people were doing well enough to begin to care about packaging and presentation. A set of facial soaps in 1978 was the first to start the flashy wrapping craze, soon followed in the early 1980s by almost all gift items, enhancing the value of the gift sets as well as their price. A deluxe facial soap set that cost no more than 20,000 won in the 1970s, was trussed up and fancified and resold for 100,000 won in the 1980s. People used to be happy with just a random paper bag, but started to grow picky about the harmony of colors and trimming.
The improvement in living conditions led people to look for variety and high-quality in their daily lives, and Chuseok sets soon followed suit. To meet the demand, department stores, the major suppliers of Chuseok gifts, increased the gift set options all the way to 3,000 kinds.
The top item of the 1980s was the beef ribs set, first introduced in 1978 at department stores as the gift that couldn’t go wrong. Beef rib sets were considered to be deluxe and exorbitant, so when a father brought a beef rib set home, he was treated like a VIP. A set of dried croakers was also a very-welcome gift.
Some gift sets that survived from the 1980s, assorted seasonings, facial soaps, canned tuna and toothpaste, became classics due to their reasonable price and practicality. Oh Gang-guk, a manager at LG Household & Health Care, says he sees a considerable increase of profit every year around Chuseok holiday season. “Most buyers are company units, looking for reasonable gifts for all staff members,” he says.
Several new types of sets also made their debuts in the 1980s, including high-priced health products such as honey and ginseng.
“The trend over these luxury goods reflects how much the standard of living improved,” Lee Chang-seung says.
Gift sets in the 1990s showed a tendency to go to extremes, between the unimaginably overpriced and the pragmatic.
Especially with the economic crisis in the late 1990s, those extremes intensified. Right after the slump in 1997, the best-selling items were imported whiskey. Lee Chang-seung says some sumptuous items, like Remy Martin Louis XIV cognac for 1.3 million won and dried croaker sets for over 1 million won, were unprecedented and unexpectedly popular.
In the mid-1990s, giant discount shopping malls opened, promoting practical articles for more affordable prices, like assorted cans of tuna. It’s now a policy to buy a gift to show respect at a department store with a big, visible logo of the stores printed on the package.
A new favorite born in 1994 is the department store gift certificate. “Instead of taking pains over selecting a gift,” Mr. Lee says, “gift certificates are convenient and easily satisfy receivers.”
It’s not remarkable to receive a gift set of beef ribs anymore. The most popular holiday item, as well as the safest, is still the gift certificate, which can range from 100,000 won to 1 million won. Health products are also much in demand these days, such as a freshly picked box of pine mushrooms. A small box that contains less than 10 mushrooms can cost well over 500,000 won.
Another new entry is Korean traditional sweets, available in a variety of prices. Sets of assorted oil-andhoney pastries and fried rice cakes with various spices in lavish packaging made from a lacquered empress tree can cost 2.5 million won at department stores.
In the year 2000, when North-South reconciliation was in the air, special editions of gift sets started showing up, with names like “Praying for Reunification.” They included specialties from North Korea such as ginseng liquor, ferns and roots of broad bellflower. Another gift set had South Korean dried persimmons and North Korean walnuts.
A retail expert, Lee Chang-seung, says that high-class custom-made gift sets are also popular. A custom-made beef set, containing only the best cuts, can cost 450,000 won. Other custommade sets include wine and flower baskets and sets of live abalone.
Although Chuseok gift items are becoming more diverse and fancy, the old standards live on. So don’t be surprised if you get a box of toothpaste, for it’s a heartfelt token of appreciation.
by Chun Su-jin