Chuseok vs. Christmas: Are we that different?

In The Social Fabric on September 12, 2011 at 6:00 pm

If you’re currently employed in a Korean company, you may have been surprised to receive a gift in the  past week.  It most likely would have come in the shape of an over-sized, yet beautifully decorated, rectangular cardboard box.  Inside that box could have been anywhere from toothpaste, shampoo, or even 12 cans of assorted flavoured Spam.  Only if you’re lucky.

It’s Chuseok.  It is the biggest holiday on the Korean calendar, and a time for feasting, traditional ceremonies and visiting relatives.  Sound familiar?  It took me a few years to really understand the similarities due to my own cultural bias, but I have recently discovered that Chuseok is really not that different from Christmas.  If you think that Asian culture and traditions are so far removed from our own, and thus hard to relate to, I ask you to consider the following.

The first thing to notice about Chuseok, is the travel.  Part of the Chuseok tradition is to visit ancestral hometowns in order to honor passed loved ones.  This includes the cleaning and upkeep of tombs and grave sites, and preparing offering tables.  Families make the mass exodus to all parts of Korea, clogging streets with traffic and making ticket purchase on trains and buses all but impossible.

Maybe it’s because our Christmas season has more vacation time, or maybe it’s geography, or population, or all three.  Traffic may not be unbearable, but if you’ve ever been in an airport on Christmas Eve, or watched a movie about being in an airport on Christmas Eve, you know that we have the same issues.  We all make that obligatory journey back to wherever the family is, whether we are excited about it or not.  Perhaps we don’t honor past family members in the same way, but we reminisce about Christmases when they were.  Most families have a moment or two which starts a conversation with ‘Remember that Christmas when….”

The central focus on Chuseok is of course the food.  Koreans know feasting.  Preparations begin days in advance, with traditional foods such as Songpyeon (crescent moon shaped rice cake), Chabchae (a glass noodle dish with meat and vegetables) and various kinds of Jeon (traditional pancake) which are only a minute representative of what is prepared.  And who is doing the cooking?  That would of course be the women.  The modern ladies of Korean society dread the coming of Chuseok for the stress it brings.  They are chained to the kitchen under the judgmental eyes of mothers, grandmothers, and of course mothers-in-law.  It’s a girls club, but not one that seems to have a happy membership.   The men of course partake in the feasting, and the drinking of traditional rice wines such as Dong Dong Ju, or of course Soju.  They still have it pretty good.

In our less patriarchal societies women are much less compelled to slave away in the kitchen over a hot stove, but that doesn’t mean we don’t.  Christmas traditions vary in every family, but food most definitely would be the common denominator.  As long as I can remember, the women in my family have been responsible for the Turkey, the ham, the stuffing, the roast veggies, the salads, the pudding.  Whether you enjoyed doing it or not dictated your involvement, and maybe that’s where the difference lies.   If you’re not so good at cooking, it’s okay to be responsible for pouring the wine for those that are.  But invariably, the aunts, the mothers, the grandmothers and daughters would join together near the kitchen, while the men loiter near the barbecue or gather in some other part of the house.   One commonality I’ve noticed to both cultures, is the post feasting nap.  A good food coma knows no cultural boundary.

Chuseok gets a bad wrap with the younger generation these days, with all the pressures they face from older members of the family.  Chuseok is a time of interrogation that nobody under the age of 40 can escape.  The questions are choose-your-own-adventure style, which change direction depending on your yes or no answers.   For example, if you are single the question is “When are you going to get a boyfriend/girlfriend?”.  If you have a significant other, it’s “When are you getting married?”.  If you’re married you might get “When are you having children?”.  It doesn’t just revolve around your love-life, children get the third degree about jobs, money, houses….there are any number categories available at an elder’s discretion.  The added scrutiny for some simply takes all the fun out of things.

I challenge anyone returning home for the Christmas season who has not encountered one, if not all of such questions.  Families have their ways of getting under your skin like nobody else in our lives, and the stress of the holiday season often amplifies their skills.  Christmas time tests patience levels, and we often have to play different roles in order to keep the peace.  Perhaps we don’t face the same set of questions, and perhaps it doesn’t happen to everyone every year.  But I can’t help but feel a kind of understanding for young Koreans today, who might have their answers already prepared.  I’ve done the same.

The one major difference I’ve noticed about the two seasons is the joy.  Chuseok seems increasingly like an obligation, and not as much an opportunity to enjoy each other’s company and eat really, really delicious food.  But of course, it depends on who you talk to.  When it comes to Christmas and Chuseok, each holiday is different, each family is different.  But perhaps not radically so.   There are aspects of the two holidays in which we can find common ground, and maybe come to understand each other better.  In the meantime, for those in Seoul, enjoy the eerie quiet.  All will be a bustle again by Wednesday.

추석 잘 보내세요!

Happy Chuseok!


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