With the arrival of autumn comes the one of the busiest times of year for families across Korea. The festival of Chuseok, or Full Moon Harvest, takes place on the 3rd Oct. and in preparation for this, perhaps the most important date in the Korean calendar, families begin to organise the events and ceremonies that must traditionally take place.
Chuseok originates as far back as the Shilla Dynasty, around two thousand years ago. Born, in part, from a weaving competition initiated by the Shilla King Euri, Chuseok also has roots in the traditional fall harvest.
While comparisons can be drawn with Thanksgiving in the West, or perhaps even Christmas; Chuseok differs from the festive periods that most of us non-natives are familiar with; as although it is a time for celebration, it is also a time for hard work.
Family values The core value behind Chuseok is family unity, honour and duty; hence its importance as a time for remembering ancestors and paying respects to those members of the family who are deceased.
An important part of this process is a ceremony which takes place in the run-up to Chuseok, known as the Bul-cho, or grass-cutting ceremony; in which the grass on and around a family’s ancestral burial mounds is cut and the graves themselves tidied.
The Bul-cho is a serious business, often planned far in advance by the male head of each family, or first born son. Extended family will come from all around; reuniting brothers, sisters and cousins, and grandparents with their grown-up children and grand children; relatives will even come from abroad, sometimes booking their flights months before.
Those who are utterly unable to make it are sometimes required to pay a fine for their absence, which is paid into the family’s shared fund of money. Although it may seem a little extreme to non-Koreans, it reinforces the value placed on filial piety that still exists in modern Korea.
It’s not unusual for a family to have many graves to tend to, perhaps even as many as thirty or forty; and in this case often the work will be divided among groups of family members. Despite this dividing-up of duties the process of cutting, clearing and tidying can still take two to three days to complete.
Up until the early 1980s a tool called a ‘nat’ was used to cut the grass; scythe-like and two metres in length, with a 60cm-long curved blade, it was used by male members of the family as using it was a laborious and back-breaking task.
Traditionally the female members of the family, along with the very young children, would be responsible for preparing the ceremonial food, gathering the grass cuttings and tidying around the grave. In modern times, however, mechanical garden trimmers are used, making it easier for women to take on the cutting work.
Once the grass cutting is finished the ceremonial food, prepared by the women of the family, is laid out next to the graves. Apples, chestnuts, jujubes, pears and persimmons are often prepared, along with red beans which, as they are thought to expel malevolent spirits due to their red colouring, are frequently used in many Korean rituals. The family will eat together at the graveside to honour their ancestors in a way that many feel involves the spirits of their loved ones in family life.
“Your grandfather is deceased but you still have to clean his house or it will become untidy and ugly,” said Ko Young-ja, researcher at the Jeju Traditional Culture Institute and editor of their traditional folk studies periodical. She also stressed the importance of the Bul-cho, not only for the purposes of honouring the dead, but in strengthening family ties and encouraging children to respect their elders.
Although some fear that modern society’s preoccupation with earning money is causing fewer people to tend their ancestors’ graves in person and is instead leading to the establishment of commercial business offering grave-mowing; the Bul-cho is, for the time being, still a significant part of the festival preparations.
In the weeks before Chuseok it will not be uncommon to see groups of family members gathering at their ancestors’ burial mounds to prepare for the Bul-cho. Children are allowed a day off from school in order to participate in this important ceremony and to take part in a practice that is intrinsic to the very core of their cultural beliefs.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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