Chuseok and Korean Culture

In 2015, Chuseok will be celebrated from Saturday, September 26th through Tuesday, September 29th. We’re pulling this post – originally published here on Korea Ye on September 17, 2013 – for those of you who missed reading it the first time around.


Chuseok is just around the corner! Chuseok is Korea’s Thanksgiving. Living with a Korean family, I have personally encountered first-hand a fair share of ceremonies and culture. So, I thought this would be a great time to talk about some interesting Korean superstitions and culture points that perhaps many foreigners here do not know.

In Korea, in the days just before Chuseok, the mothers, daughters and daughters-in-law make the bi-annual trek to the open markets (the first trek being on Seollal, Korean New Year) in order to buy the finest ingredients for the cheapest price. Similarly to American Thanksgiving, Chuseok involves a table filled to the brim with food. The difference here is, the food is made as an offering to relatives and ancestors who have passed on. Once the ceremony honoring the deceased has been completed, then, and only then may those of us still living partake in the feast. Because of the deeply spiritual roots in the ceremony, Koreans believe that all food used must be pure and unaltered. This means every ingredient used must be bought brand new and fresh (ex. Even if you had a bag of rice before, it cannot be used. A new, fresh, unopened bag of rice must be purchased.) and not a single morsel of it may be eaten before the ceremony.

  Korea--Chuseok and Korean Culture--Koreaye.comHere is my in-laws’ set up from a few years ago. Photo quality is really bad, sorry for that.

Korea also has many superstitions which are closely tied with this ceremony, many of which I’m almost certain I would never have found out about if I were just an English teacher and not married to a Korean. One such example has to do with Korea’s ever present drinking culture. Most foreigners here know that there are a lot of rules when it comes to drinking: never pour your own drink, always pour other people’s drinks, never face an elder while drinking, always pour and drink with both hands, etc. Along with these I’ve discovered, the amount you pour into a shot glass is important as well; with friends, if you pour too much or too little, people will give you flack.

So, when I was drinking with my husband one night, I was trying to figure out how much to pour. I had originally poured far too little, so before he drank it, I poured a little more, but the glass was still only half full, so I poured a tad more to round it out. My husband got this look on his face like I had just slapped him. When I inquired as to why, he said that pouring 3 times is reserved only for the dead. At the time, I had not yet experienced the traditions of Chuseok so I didn’t understand what he meant, but now I do. In the ancestral ceremony, nearly everything is done in groups of three. I’m not sure why it is, but 3 is like some sort of lucky ancestral number.

At the ceremony, rice wine is poured into a glass placed on a pedestal, that is then held by each family member in turn. The person pouring the rice wine pours a little in, then a little more, and a third time, a little more. This glass is then offered to the ancestors by hovering it over burning incense in a counter-clockwise circular motion for three rotations. The glass and pedestal are placed on the table with the food, and the ancestors are allowed to ‘eat’ after a pair of chopsticks and a spoon have been dipped into a water bowl and clinked 3 times. The system repeats until all of the family members have honored the ancestors.

Korea--Chuseok and Korean Culture food --Koreaye.comThe rice wine cup on its pedestal after being offered.

Family members also bow as a sign of respect to the departed, a full bow all the way to the ground twice, and a third bow from the waist once. Along with that, a traditional side dish called Namool (blanched seasoned vegetables) is made in 3 colors, white, brown and green. The white one is bean sprouts, the brown one is fern shoots and the green one is spinach. In the picture above there also happens to be 3 apples and 3 pears, but this is not a required thing, there can be more than 3, but if you go above 3 it must be in multiples of three, such as 6 or 9.

Another superstition that I found quite strange as an American, is the aversion to hair. At Chuseok, the house must be immaculately clean, and the mothers are often seen on all fours with a lint roller obsessively rolling up dust and fallen hairs. I thought it was simply because they wanted the house to be presentable, but my mother-in-law informed me that when the ceremony begins, the spirits of the deceased are called into the home, and any fallen hairs on the floor will appear to the spirits as snakes. This could deter the spirits and upset them, possibly affecting luck for the family in the future.

Korea--Chuseok and Korean Culture--Koreaye.comThis is a spirit slip, the name of the spirit being called upon is written on it. In this case, my husband’s father.

As for other Korean superstitions, many of them still have to do with death. Never ever write a person’s name in red pen. I almost wrote the name of a famous Korean singer in red on the white board without thinking when I was teaching my students the other day; they freaked out and that’s when I realized I had the red pen and not the black one. Luckily I had only written the first letter, otherwise I think the poor girls would have cried (the singer was a dreamy male singer, by the way). Koreans believe that if a name is written in red pen they will die, as it’s something only done at funerals. Although that’s completely true since we all die eventually, but regardless I try to respect the superstition and never do it.

Another superstition I found out by accidentally doing it was stepping over someone. Many people in Korea still sleep on mats on the floor, including my husband and I. I always sleep against the wall, and our room is really small, so getting up to go to the bathroom is impossible without stepping over my husband. One night before he fell asleep, I got up to go brush my teeth, so I stepped over his hip/waist area and went on my way. Or, I would have, but The Hubs let out a gasp. I freak out because I thought I had stepped on his hand or something, but he said, “You stepped over me!” I thought he was being stupid, so I was like “well, yeeaah…” He proceeded to tell me that yet again I had discovered something reserved for the dead. If you must step over someone, do it below the knees, he told me. Stepping over someone’s chest is one of the most disrespectful things you can do.

There are dozens of other culture points and superstitions that I could go over, but if I did, this would turn into a novel, so I shall save them for another day.

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