Today is Chuseok, a Korean holiday similar to American Thanksgiving. Along with the Lunar New Year, Chuseok is one of Korea’s two most important holidays. Since ICON is from Korea yet many of its supporters aren’t, we thought we’d take this opportunity to share a bit about what makes this holiday special.

Like Thanksgiving in the United States and Canada, Chuseok celebrates the autumn harvest. It takes place on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month on the harvest moon. In Korea, it is accompanied by a long holiday of at least three days, giving people time to travel, cook and make other preparations for the celebration.

Traditionally, Koreans return to their ancestral hometowns for the holiday. This often means leaving big cities such as Seoul for smaller cities and towns where the eldest male on the paternal line of the family lives. The result is a mass exodus from urban areas often likened to a national migration. The lucky ones reserved their train or plane tickets early. Others have to make due with cars or buses on jam-packed highways. The five-hour drive to Busan can take nearly a full day.

One of Chuseok’s most important traditions is an ancestral rites ceremony called the charye (see also here). Families hold the charye early in the morning of Chuseok and Lunar New Year, usually at the home of the oldest male. The ceremony, which at Chuseok offers gratitude to late ancestors for the harvest, involves the placing of freshly harvested rice, rice cakes and dozens of other dishes on a low table as an offering for the late ancestors. A lot of work goes into preparing the food for the ceremony, a burden that has traditionally fallen on the women of the family. Some families choose not to hold the charye, however, for religious reasons.

Just prior to Chuseok, many families visit the tombs of their ancestors to cut the grass, clear the weeds and pay their respects. Even ancient royal tombs get some love and attention.

American Thanksgiving has turkey. Korean Chuseok has songpyeon. Shaped like a half-moon, songpyeon are small rice cakes that can contain various sweet fillings such as sesame seeds and honey, red bean paste or chestnut paste. They are steamed over a layer of pine needles, lending them their characteristic pine fragrance. Though families often make their own, many prefer to buy them at rice cakes shops. In fact, this writer just bought a kilo of them to bring to the office.

Fried pancakes, or jeon, are another popular Chuseok dish, usually made from vegetables such as sweet potato or zucchini, but sometimes from fish or meat. Being an autumn harvest festival, Chuseok is also blessed with many seasonal grains and fruits, including apples, pears and grapes.

Depending on your community or locality, other traditions might accompany the Chuseok holiday, too. Gazing at the full moon is popular nationwide, weather permitting. Traditionally, women performed a circular folk dance, the Gangangsullae, under the full moon to pray for a bountiful harvest. Some parts of Korea host bullfights on the holiday, too – unlike its Spanish equivalent, this involves two bulls going head-to-head to determine which one is stronger, with no loss of human or bovine life. You can always catch a match of Korean wrestling, or ssireum, on TV, too.

Times are changing, of course, as is how Koreans choose to pass the Chuseok holiday. In particular, many now choose to use the long holiday to travel. Nowadays, over 1 million people use Incheon International Airport during the Chuseok holiday. With this year’s Chuseok break being a relatively short one, domestic travel destinations such as Jeju are popular choices, as are overseas destinations in Southeast Asia.

Anyway, we at The Iconist wish our readers a happy and healthy Chuseok holiday, regardless of how you choose to spend it.