Chuseok is South Korea’s one of the most important national holidays. It is also known and celebrated as the Korean autumn harvest festival as well as Korean Thanksgiving. Chuseok, which literally means “Autumn eve” is celebrated on the 15th day of 8th month of the lunar calendar on the full moon, usually around the autumn equinox. Koreans also like to call it a harvest moon, which is known as the night with the best autumn moonlight. This year, Chuseok fell on Thursday 1st of October. Starting from Wednesday, the festival was celebrated for five days including the weekend.
In Chuseok, Koreans visit their family’s home towns, worship ancestors and enjoy harvest feasts with songpyeon (small rice cakes) and rice wines. It is a happy time of family reunion. As such, Koreans all over the country try to return to their hometowns to pay respect to ancestors.
Families gather around tombs in graveyards to clean and tidy up the area and lay flowers besides the headstones in remembrance and respect. As a part of the traditional ceremony of paying respect, they lay-out many delicious and specific food items on a picnic mat as ritual offering. They enjoy the festivity with food and wine and share presents with each other.
Unfortunately, Chuseok this year was not as lively and joyful as it used to be because of fear of coronavirus and the restrictions that are put in place. In previous years, during Chuseok, bus, train and plane tickets would sell out months in advance. With increased movement of people trying to get back to their hometowns, public transit system and roads used to be heavily congested; but this year, due to social distancing measures, trains and buses were leaving stations half-empty. Fewer families than usual were recorded in the cemeteries and memorial homes with some opting out for online offering services. Even South Korean soldiers deployed abroad celebrated the holiday by themselves this year. In previous years, they held special ceremonies and functions at their base for themselves and the local population. So, a normally joyful and happy time of the year in Korea was upended this year due to coronavirus!
Korean health officials urged people to maintain social distancing guidelines and not to travel back to their hometowns. Ahead of Chuseok, health minister Mr. Park Neung-hoo delivered a video message to Korean people that said in part, “we’d like to ask everyone to build family bonds and say hello to each other in a non-contact manner during this year’s Chuseok for the safety of your families and all of us… We can have video calls with each other or use video conferencing for family gatherings”. The government also put in place a ban on eating at restaurants along the major highway rest-areas that are very popular amongst the Koreans traveling by road.
In short, coronavirus has forced Koreans to reconsider their ways of honoring the ancestors and family gatherings during Chuseok celebration.