Chuseok is the mid-autumn festival celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. It is usually a three day holiday – something quite rare in Korea – emphasizing the importance of this holiday.
Although called by different names depending on the era, Chuseok has been celebrated in Korea for centuries. Celebrating the harvest and the full moon also come hand in hand, as the full moon symbolizes fecundity and prosperity. Since the brightest and fullest moon is said to rise on Chuseok, it is more than reason enough for celebration.
Chuseok is generally called the “Korean Thanksgiving” and that is exactly what it is: a festival to celebrate the harvest and the bounty of autumn. In Korea, however, there is much emphasis on one’s ancestors. People go back to their hometowns to get together with their families to tend the ancestors’ graves and give thanks to them through solemn ancestral rites.
Naturally, because it is a holiday celebrating the harvest, food becomes a central focus. Special Chuseok foods like songpyeon, rice cakes in crescent shapes with various fillings, are made together as a family. Among the traditional games played on Chuseok, the dance Ganggangsullae consists of people holding hands, singing and dancing in circles under the bright full moon.
In Korea, you can’t talk about the full moon without thinking about the rabbit.
The rabbit in the moon is also called the “jade rabbit”, which is common in the folklore of not only Korea, but also China, Japan, and other countries where Buddhism is an important part of their culture. In Chinese folklore the rabbit is busily pounding a special medicine in a mortar for the Goddess of the Moon; in Korea, the rabbit is busily pounding rice to make Tteok (rice cakes); in both cases, it is making an essence of life.
Legend says there once was a village where a rabbit, a fox, and a monkey resided. The three devoted themselves to Buddhism and spent much time in its study and practice. One day, the Emperor of the Heavens looked upon them and to test their faith, told them to bring him something to eat. The three set off to fulfill his wish. Consequently, the fox returned with fish, the monkey with fruit, and the rabbit, who could do nothing but gather grass, lit a fire with it and jumped in, offering his own self. His commitment earned the approval of the Emperor and he was placed in the moon as its guardian, with “smoke” surrounding him as a reminder of his endeavor.
This legend also varies depending on the region of origin: sometimes the Emperor of the Heavens is disguised as a poor old man, sometimes it’s not the three animals mentioned above but others. The actions of the rabbit remain consistent, however, and the results of his deed as well.
Along with the rabbit, in the Korean versions, the Gyesu tree is always mentioned, i.e. the Korean laurel/cinnamon tree. Apparently the rabbit is standing under the Gyesu tree while pounding on its mortar. Other folk tales and legends also mention the tree quite often, as it is known to be a sturdy, long living tree, and its bark (as cinnamon) has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries.
Because the rabbit signifies fertility, it is not surprising that it is paired with the Gyesu tree to signify a long, bountiful, and happy life – something the Korean’s wish for while gazing at the full moon.
Modern day interpretations usually depict two rabbits happily making Tteok (rice cakes) together, which makes it even more significant for Chuseok, a time for family and friends to come together.
Treat yourself to all the delicious food you can, head outside with loved ones to catch a glimpse of the rabbit in the bright full moon, and have a joyful dancing round of Ganggangsullae this Chuseok.
Find your nearest Asian Store