traffic jam on highway

Was Chuseok Ever Fun?

Between Sep. 29 and Oct. 9, more than two million passengers used Incheon Airport, South Korea’s main international travel hub. It set a record for the normally busy facility. 

What made the traffic all the more special is that it coincided with Chuseok, one of the country’s two major holidays.

Traditionally, Chuseok and Lunar New Year (“Seolnal”) have been occasions for family gatherings, public festivities, gift exchange and a great deal of eating, not unlike Christmas in the West. Except on this ‘family holiday,’ many South Koreans couldn’t wait to get away from their families, or at least their extended kin.

It’s been recognized for some time in South Korea that traditional holidays are no longer a source of fun. More often, they bring stress, family tension and unending kitchen labor for women. Going to one’s hometown can require hours of driving on crowded highways. Students cannot enjoy Chuseok all that much because it is soon followed by important exams like the College Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Then there are also the intrusive questions even distant relatives seem to feel they are permitted to ask at family lunch or dinner: Did you gain weight? When are you getting a job? When are you going to get married? When are you having children? How much do you earn? 

South Korean media routinely run many articles on the tribulations of celebrating traditional holidays, and many of them generate strong reactions from readers. 

One clearly popular topic is the battle of will between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, commonly known as gobu galdeung in Korean. Young women are increasingly resisting the expectation that they should toil away in the kitchen as domestic servants while men watch TV and drink in the living room.

While that itself isn’t a new story, the increasing awareness of gender inequality in South Korea means that mothers-in-law also feel profound discomfort in being around their daughters-in-law, whom they once took for granted as extra pairs of hands. There is recognition that things cannot continue as before, but then what is the acceptable expectation to have toward one’s son’s wife?

Husbands, meanwhile, feel trapped. Do you side with your wife and make your mother upset? Or do you side with your mother and risk being called a male chauvinist? The ensuing fight between spouses results in increased divorce filings right after Chuseok and Lunar New Year.

Another dominant theme this year was envy toward the record number of holiday makers leaving South Korea. “People who benefit from their ancestors are off to holiday destinations,” said the headline of a Korea Herald article. 

One internet user lamented, “Ones who bow in group in the name of ancestor worship are dirt-spoon working-class, while gold-spoons are humming on their way to vacations abroad during the long holiday.”

Chuseok doesn’t just involve festivities; it’s when tables are set up with elaborate dishes and fruits as offerings for dead ancestors. The suggestion is that many are spending their inherited wealth on travel (because to be rich is to be born that way), while the less well-off are stuck in the country.

With more than 3,000 comments, the article struck a chord because it hinted at inequality in South Korean society as well as the frustration some people feel at having to continue a tradition seen as outdated and useless. After all, ancestors won’t help you get rich no matter how many times you bow.

Chuseok might have been more fun when Korea was an agrarian society and festivals provided a reason for people to get together.

According to Dongguk Sesigi, a book about the customs and traditions of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Chuseok was for welcoming the harvest season by venerating the full moon and ancestors. After the ancestral rites, or jesa, the whole village, the rich and the poor alike, would gather and feast on food and drinks, while women danced in circles under the moon and men competed in wrestling bouts.

That picture is probably too romantic and simplistic to be true, and with rapid urbanization in the twentieth century, the notion of celebrating harvest anyway feels quaint for many South Koreans. The sense of unity villagers might have enjoyed in the past manifests only faintly at highly discordant family gatherings.

The values Chuseok embodies — community, patriarchy and pleasure at the only truly bountiful season of the year — no longer resonate in a nation that sees the average family size shrink, questions existing hierarchies and enjoys material abundance all year around.

But few complained about the fact of getting time off — Chuseok usually offers only three days of vacation, but this year it made for a 10 day-break because it was flanked by two weekends and two additional national holidays. (On top of it all, the government even declared one working day in between a temporary holiday in a bid to boost domestic consumption.) It made for an unprecedented exodus to even far-flung destinations that overworked South Koreans ordinarily only dream about. Or at least a chance to get some rest in between family drama.

And some good news: If they stay alive until 2025, people are expected to get another long Chuseok holiday period lasting ten days.

 

Cover image: Chuseok: the holiday for traffic jams.  (Source: Pixabay)

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Jieun Choi is staff writer at Korea Exposé. She has worked in the art industry and startups in Hong Kong and Australia.