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Chusok (Chuseok, Ch'usok)

Type of Holiday: Folkloric, Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: Late September-early October; fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month
Where Celebrated: Korea
Symbols and Customs: Hemp-Spinning, Merry-Go-Round, Moon Cakes, Tortoise Play
Related Holidays: Mid-Autumn Festival


Also known as Chuseog or Gawi, Chusok is one of the great national holidays of the year in Korea. Because it is celebrated in late September or early October-for which reason it is sometimes referred to as Autumn Evening -the weather is usually very temperate and the crops ripe or newly harvested. Farmers in particular are eager to celebrate the end of the growing season, which they do by serving wine and other foods made from the season's new grain (see MOON CAKES ). Farmers believe that if it rains on this day, the wheat crop will be poor the following year.

Since ancient times people in all parts of the world have honored the changing of the seasons. Many cultures divided the year into two seasons, summer and winter, and marked these points of the year at or near the summer and winter solstices, during which light and warmth began to increase and decrease, respectively. In pre-industrial times, humans survived through hunting, gathering, and agricultural practices, which depend on the natural cycle of seasons, according to the climate in the region of the world in which they lived. Thus, they created rituals to help ensure enough rain and sun in the spring and summer so crops would grow to fruition at harvest time, which was, in turn, duly celebrated. Vestiges of many of these ancient practices are thought to have survived in festivals still celebrated around seasonal themes.

In addition to being a harvest festival, Chusok is a day for honoring ancestors. Families get up early, change into new clothes, and arrange an offering of food for their ancestors and family god. After a brief ceremony at home, they visit their ancestors' graves, mowing the weeds and wild grasses that may have become tangled and overgrown. Other popular activities on this day include wrestling contests, tugs-of-war, and playing MERRY GO ROUND .



According to an old Korean legend, King Yuri-wang of Silla in southeastern Korea had his princesses lead the ladies of his capital city in a hemp-weaving contest that went on for a full month, ending on the fifteenth day of the eighth moon. There were two groups of weavers, with the king himself serving as judge. The group that lost the contest had to prepare wine and food to entertain the winning group. At this victory celebration, one woman from the defeated group danced and sang a song lamenting her group's defeat. This melancholy but very beautiful melody soon became popular throughout the country, but unfortunately, it has not survived. The joint weaving of cloth from hemp, however, became a tradition that can still be seen in some of the customs associated with Chusok in the southern part of the country.


The festivities that are held on Chusok often include a singing folk play known as Gang-gang-sullae, in which women dressed in bright colors perform a circular dance to the accompaniment of a single vocalist. The song she sings can be traced back three centuries to the Japanese invasion of Korea. Women gathered in the hills along the coast and sang the song known as Gang-gang-sullae around bonfires to give the enemy the impression that the coast was well-guarded.

Gang-gang is a Korean dialect expression meaning "circumstances" or "round," and sullae is derived from sulla, which means "patrolling." Together, they imply looking out or around, which is exactly what the women were doing as they tried to protect their homeland. Sometimes the pronunciation of sullae is prolonged, sounding more like suweol lae. The custom of playing merry-go-round or kang- kang-soo-wol-lae under the full harvest moon at Chusok is undoubtedly related to this historical attempt to mislead the enemy.

Moon Cakes

The word sok in Chusok means "a moon-bright evening." It is popular during this harvest festival to eat rice cakes shaped like a moon or half-moon, stuffed with beans and flavored with pine needles. The round cakes are symbolic of family unity at a time of year when families honor their ancestors.

Tortoise Play

This play is performed by young men or boys on the evening of the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month. A large tortoise shape is made with corn leaves, and Chusok

two men (one in front and the other in the rear) get inside it and walk around, visiting farmers' homes and performing what is known as the tortoise play or the tortoise dance. At the end, the tortoise collapses on the ground as if exhausted by its efforts. The tortoise-driver then tells the head of the house or the farmer that the tortoise needs to be fed. Not surprisingly, the rice cakes, food, and fruit that are brought out revive the tortoise, who then stands up and plays his final scene before continuing on to the next house.

In Chinese mythology, the tortoise is a symbol of strength, endurance, and longevity that is particularly associated with winter. The Korean tortoise play may have originated from this association of the tortoise with long life and immunity from disease, and from the timing of this festival, which takes place in autumn before the arrival of winter.


Crim, Keith R. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Sang-su, Choe. Annual Customs of Korea. Seoul: Seomun-dang, 1983. Trawicky, Bernard, and Ruth W. Gregory. Anniversaries and Holidays. 5th ed. Chicago: American Library Assocation, 2000.


Cultural Spotlight

Chuseok (Gawi or Hangawi)

15th day of the eighth lunar month
The Mid-Autumn Festival, which is observed in China, Japan, Vietnam, and other Asian countries, is celebrated in Korea as well, where it is called Chuseok or Hangawi . This fall harvest festival is marked on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month and is a major national holiday in Korea. Like Thanksgiving in the United States, Chuseok finds many people on the move in Korea as they travel to spend the holiday with their families.
Koreans traditionally begin the day with a religious service at home to remember their ancestors. Then they visit the graves of their departed family members and clear away the weeds and grasses around the tombs; this is not only a symbolic act of honoring their ancestors, but also a practical matter, because of the increased chance for grass fires during the typically dry autumn season. Then people go home and enjoy foods traditional to the season. Various rice-based dishes incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables are popular. Other customary games and activities include wrestling for men, a women's circle song and dance called Gang-gang-sullae in the south, and in rural areas, a cow or ox game, in which two men or boys in a cow or ox costume visit each house in the neighborhood and beg for something to eat; if the householder feeds them, they perform a dance. Taking walks in the evening and admiring the moon is also a favorite activity on Chuseok, since the holiday falls on the full moon day of the eighth month.
Korea National Tourism Organization
1 Executive Dr., Ste. 100
Fort Lee, NJ 07024
800-868-7567 or 201-585-0909; fax: 201-585-9041
AnnCustKorea-1983, p. 135
FestWrld: SouthKorea-1998, p. 20
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 508
HolSymbols-2009, p. 150