There will be a great migration of people across the Korean Peninsula beginning September 5. 

Major roads around the country will be jammed with an endless stream of traffic, as cars move at the speed of turtles. Tickets for trains and airplanes have been sold out and there are no more tickets left to buy. It is Chuseok, the biggest holiday in Korea, and in 2014 it falls on September 8, giving people a five-day vacation from September 6 to 10. 

Chuseok marks the beginning of the traditional harvest season during which farmers would reap the fruits of their year-long efforts. In modern times, every factory ceases during that period. So do offices and markets. The mass, urban metropolises, normally congested with traffic, become nearly desolate. 



During Chuseok, the biggest holiday in Korea, roads across the country are congested with endless traffic (top), while the metropolitan downtown areas become deserted. (photos: Yonhap News)

Chuseok is a time for reunions with families in a parent's or older sibling's hometown. People leave their apartment and head to their childhood homes. They buy and bring as many gifts as they can carry for their parents, siblings and other relatives. For many people, one's childhood home is a resting place that will live forever in their heart. 

Human migration continues 

During Chuseok, homeward-bound roads take longer than ever. It normally takes four to five hours to reach major cities such as Busan or Gwangju from Seoul. During Chuseok, it can often take over ten hours. Nonetheless, people endure and are still excited and feel great on their journeys home to see their extended family. 

This year, there are reportedly 35 million people migrating across the country during Chuseok. That means that 75 percent of the country's population will be on the move. Such a great migration of people every year mirrors the rapid urbanization and industrialization that Korean society underwent over the past few decades. 



The shelves are stocked with gift sets prior to Chuseok. (photos: Jeon Han)

Korea used to be a rural farming society before the 1970s. Most of its land was used for agriculture. A majority of its people were farmers. Rapid urbanization and industrialization, characterized by large industrial complexes, changed the lives of many people. Most young people left their rural homes and moved to a large city to look for jobs. Like they promised, however, they return to their childhood home twice a year: on Lunar New Year's Day and on Chuseok. Although on the surface society has been thus physically transformed, the sentiments and traditions held by the many people who return to their childhood homes every year have not changed that much. In a word, tradition is still deep-rooted. 

Chuseok, a festival of sharing 

Chuseok is a festival during which people share their fruition and celebrate the arrival of the mid-autumn harvest season on the Korean Peninsula. Rice transplanted earlier in April and May grew fast during the hot humid summer. It ripens in time for Chuseok as the seeds on the stalk become harder and heavier, bending the stalk to the ground. Seasonal fruits, such as apples and pears, also ripen and sweeten under the hot sun, waiting to be served. In addition, most work places offer bonuses so that people can cheerfully return to their hometowns with a full wallet.


People make half-moon rice cakes with a sweet filling, or songpyeon, with the rice harvested around Chuseok. (photo: Yonhap News)


Mouth-watering songpyeon is ready to be served. (photo: Jeon Han)


During Chuseok, families gather and talk until late in the night about things that they have not shared for a long time. They purchase half-moon rice cakes with a sweet filling, or songpyeon, normally made with freshly harvested rice, as well as fruit, like apples or pears. This is in preparation for the ancestral rite, or charye, through which they thank their ancestors for the harvest. People also kindheartedly share delicious food with their neighbors. No matter how poor they are, people share food and enjoy their time during Chuseok. So there is a saying that, "I wish that all 365 days of the year were just like Chuseok." . 

In particular, there is one thing that is not to be missed during Chuseok. Families gather and visit their family grave site to pay respect to all the earlier generations of their family. They visit the small grave sites, scattered around the country on the low hills of the mountains, or visit a public graveyard where the ashes are stored, and recollect their parents, grandparents and earlier generations. Food prepared for the charye often includes fruits and dried meats, but sometimes they are replaced by simpler foods. In any case, people have the same mentality when it comes to paying respect to their family. Visiting the grave site is a chance to come to terms with their departed loved ones and to move on. 

Beyond paying respect to one's family, during Chuseok there are also many events and activities that one can enjoy. Traditional activities include bullfights, weaving, viewing the full moon and attending a traditional circle dance, a ganggangsullae. Some people also enjoy traditional farmers' music or participate in a tug-of-war with neighbors or against other villages. There are traditional wrestling matches, ssireum, on grassy grounds or in sandpits. The winner is named the "strong man" and given a calf, a large bag of rice, or a bolt of cotton. 

In sum, Chuseok is the biggest holiday in Korea. It is a time when people can celebrate an abundant harvest, pay tribute and express gratitude to their family and to earlier generations and can enjoy the warmth of community. 

After having a great time with family, without worrying about any other thing for a few days, people will return to their busy urban life. With renewed morale from a long rest and with encouragement from their friends and family, they start again at their labors and wait for next year's Chuseok. 

By Wi Tack-whan, Limb Jae-un