September 25, 2007 Author: Beth Salerno
Thanksgiving or Chuseok is a harvest festival set by the lunar calendar. This year it fell on September 25th. For weeks, Koreans have been celebrating with traditional dances and music - and planning for the inevitable nation-wide traffic jams. As in America, Koreans travel all over the country to be with relatives. Usually this means traveling to the parents’ or eldest son’s hometown since Chuseok is also a day to pay respect to one’s ancestors.
As the holiday approached, I got the chance to see a lot of traditional culture. Nong ark is traditional Korean dance and music. Bands ranging from 9-40 people play small gongs, large gongs, “bass” drums, hour-glass shaped, double ended drums, and flat tambourine-shaped instruments without the cymbals. Some wear hats with ball and socket hardware and a long, white streamer. As the band plays, these members dance complicated figures, all the while swinging the long streamers in graceful arcs around and over and under other dancers. The music has an amazing percussive power.
At Camp Humphreys (an American military base in Pyeongtaek) I participated in a recreation of the ancestor veneration ceremony for Chuseok. Tables full of special food, wine, incense and candles are set up near ancestor portraits, people dress in their best traditional finery, and make deep, formal bows. Then after the incense has burned down and the ancestors have had time to appreciate the good life, everybody eats until they are stuffed.
I spent Chuseok itself with Korean, Russian, Filipino, Chinese and Japanese students and a dorm director. One student prepared a feast of battered and fried vegetables, Korean pancakes, and two kinds of kimchee (thank you Song Min Kyung!!). Then we all made a traditional Chuseok treat, songpyeon (half moon rice cakes). These are very easy to make if you have a steamer, and are delicious - not too sweet, but addictive. If you would like a good recipe, go to http://www.koreaherald.co.kr/ and type songpyeon into the search box. I do not know how long the article will be accessible, but I cut the recipe out of the newspaper and you can ask me for it. Korea has hundreds of types of rice cakes - for more on this food group see the following website http://www.lifeinkorea.com/culture/ricecake/ricecake.cfm?Subject=types. In my photostream on flickr.com I posted pictures of our songpyeon - both the traditional ones and the more creative, unusual ones. Both tasted excellent, with sesame seeds, brown sugar, chewy rice and a hint of pine needle tang and fragrance.
Then as at any Thanksgiving event, we ate and laughed and shared stories and ate some more. Most stories started in English or Korean, but got translated from one to the other, with Russian and other words thrown in to get the point across. More people showed up with beer and leftovers from their Chuseok celebrations and we ate again. Then we walked, savoring the full moon over a Buddhist temple garden.
Our celebration was not quite Korean Chuseok. But it was our own form of Thanksgiving, for a good harvest of food, for friends who stand in when family is absent, for the things that make life good. Thus tradition crossed cultural boundaries, got reinvented into new forms with old meanings, and ensured its place in a changing, multicultural, but ultimately human world.