A table set for ancestorsThere is an old saying in Korea that goes, “I wish all 365 days of the year were like the Chuseok holidays.” Koreans say that for a reason. Coinciding with the harvest of bountiful crops, the Chuseok holidays, which bring families together, have always been considered one of the best times of the year.
Traditionally, Chuseok was a time to show gratitude to one’s ancestors for a good harvest after months of hard work. That custom continues today, and over the Chuseok holidays, Koreans have several rituals they perform to pay respect to their ancestors.
The charye ceremony is held in the morning, and, like other rituals, usually at the house of the eldest son of the family. Charyesang is the table containing the food set out in honor of the family’s ancestors.
Setting the charyesang table involves traditional rules. The dishes are laid out in five rows. The first, or innermost, row, which faces north, has a tablet bearing the titles of andcestors, between wine glasses.
In the second row, meat dishes are placed on the left, fish dishes on the right. Eel is not used for charyesang, because it symbolizes the dragon, a revered creature in Eastern culture. The fish heads face east because the sun rises in the east, a direction that represents resuscitation and prosperity; this rule is known as eadongyukseo (“fish east, meat west”).
Soups made from meat, fish and tofu are placed in the third row. The fourth row is made up of flattened, dried fish, wild greens, kimchi and sikhye, beverages made from boiled rice, in that order, from west to east.
The fifth, outermost row has fruit such as jujubes, chestnuts, dried persimmons, pears and traditional sweets. The fruit is placed in that order from west to east, consistent with the joyulsiyi rule (“jujubes, chestnuts, dried persimmons, pears”). These fruits symbolized luck, hope, dignity and status.
To ensure harmony in the colors of the fruit laid on the table, red fruit is set on the right, white on the left. The rule governing the position of fruit is called hongdongbaekseo (“red east, white west”).
This selection and positioning of food is in line with the rules of yin and yang and the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth, as well as the order in which ancestors ate their meals.
When it comes to nutrition, the charyesang menu also strikes a balance. The meat dishes are filled with protein, while the soups made from seaweed and fish contain plenty of calcium. Fruits and vegetables take care of vitamins and minerals. Carbohydrates, you say? Look no further than the steamed rice and rice cakes.
The most important food on the charyesang menu is tteok, or rice cake, as it is considered the purest of all the foods made of grains.
Chuseok is closely connected to the full moon; thus, the half-moon-shaped songpyeon (a type of rice cake) is also an important part of the charyesang menu.
The rituals start with the eldest son of the family burning incense sticks made of Chinese juniper. Burning incense symbolizes purgation and sanctity. Then he kneels, and bows twice on his knees. He pours a small amount of wine into a cup, up to three times, before bowing two more times.
After that, the family members standing behind him bow on their knees, twice. The wine cup is placed in front of the ancestral tablet or the picture of an ancestor.
A spoon is stuck into a rice bowl, with the bowl of the spoon facing east. Two other family members pour wine.
A bowl of water boiled with rice, sungnyung, which often comes at the end of a Korean meal, is put down instead of soup, under the assumption that the ancestors have finished their meal. The spoon is pulled out and placed in the boiled-rice water.
A cover is placed over the rice bowl. The family members bow twice, and the ceremony ends.
The charyesang menu contains a wide variety of food, and for those responsible for preparing it (usually the women), the Chuseok holidays can be a strenuous time. But nowadays it’s possible to avoid all the labor by preordering the charyesang foods.
Department and discount stores are selling pan-fried dishes and wild greens, which are relatively time-consuming to prepare at home.
Chuseok food that can now be found on store shelves includes panfried pollack, mushroom pie, fernbrake, spinach, bean sprouts, balloon flower roots and pan-fried, flattened meat and fish. Orders must be submitted two or three days before Chuseok. Some grocers even deliver to customers’ homes.
Another, easier way is to order not just some but all of the charye foods. Then all that needs preparing is the steamed rice, the wine and the special bowls and plates. The price of a full charyesang set ranges from 138,000 won ($119) all the way up to 520,000 won.
How to look like you wear hanbok every day
The Chuseok holidays offer the chance to do a number of things that one doesn’t get to do every day, like eating a variety of traditional foods, and spending time with relatives who live far away.
And one of the things that make the holiday most enjoyable is wearing hanbok, the traditional Korean clothes.
The beauty of hanbok is found in the variety of its colors, and in the silkiness of the fabric. Despite what seems to be the general perception, hanbok specialists say that wearing hanbok is as comfortable as wearing modern clothes.
One of the most important elements to wearing hanbok in style, these specialists say, is to wear inner garments below it. Beneath the jeogori, or traditional jacket, women wear sok-jeogori (sok means “inner” or “under” in Korea). This brings out the line of the hanbok, and also helps absorb perspiration. Women also wear underpants or underskirts. Underpants are long enough to reach the ankles; underskirts are 2 to 3 centimeters shorter than the outer skirts.
The left end of the skirt should be worn over the right. To keep the front of the jeogori close to the body, the strings of the jeogori need to be tied slightly left of center. The jeogori has a V-neck, so a T-shirt would be visible if worn below it.
When a man is putting on the pants, if there is extra material in the waistline, it should be gathered and folded over to the left. When wearing the vest, or magoja, which is worn over the jeogori, the bottom of the jeogori should not stick out.
One of the most difficult steps in putting on hanbok is tying the jacket string, or goreum.
The first step is to cross the shorter, right string over the left. Then the right string goes up and forward to create a knot.
The next step is to make a loop with the left string and tie it in place with the right. The loop should be horizontal; ideally, it should be one and a half times wider than the width of the string.
In tying the ankle band, or daenim, the bottom of the pant leg should be secured at the ankle. The ankle band should be held tight and wrapped twice around the ankle before the knot is tied.
Hanbok specialists say that hanbok is only perceived to be uncomfortable because people don’t wear it often. The most important thing, they say, is not to worry about whether it’s getting wrinkled or dirty. Just relax and enjoy the holiday.
Gift choices range from dried fish to toothpaste
Chuseok is about the bounty of the harvest, so it is quite natural that gifts of produce are exchanged. That’s often what’s in the large gift boxes that men and women, young and old, dressed in traditional attire, can be seen carrying when they visit family.
Typical gifts for Chuseok are boxes of fruit, meat and fish, as well as traditional sweets. Fruits often given include pears, apples and persimmons.
Dried croaker and sea bream are the most popular fish choices; they can be bought in gift boxes. Those who want to give meat frequently opt for beef rib and oxtail.
Song-i mushrooms (also known as champignon mushrooms) are one of the most expensive Chuseok gifts. Tteok, or rice cakes, and Korean traditional sweets, or hangwa, are often exchanged.
A less expensive option is a mass-produced gift of some kind ― a bottle of whiskey, an instant coffee set, sesame oil, cans of tuna and even soap and toothpaste sets are acceptable.
The gift that’s most practical, and yet less forward and more elegant than giving cash outright, is a department store gift certificate. They range in value from 100,000 won ($86) to one million won; they can only be purchased with cash or with a corporate credit card.
by Limb Jae-un