A Chuseok Charye Ceremony
This past week was Chuseok in Korea, a three day holiday celebrating the good harvest. Chuseok falls on the 15th day of the eighth month on the lunar calendar, which was September 19th this year.
The moon is full and families gather in their hometowns, or where the oldest male in the family resides, to give thanks to their ancestors with ceremonies, games and lots of food.
There are three ceremonies to be performed around Chuseok: bulcho, sungmyo and charye.
Bulcho is the clearing away of weeds and debris on the graves of family members, sungmyo is a bowing ceremony at the grave site and finally charye is a ceremony performed in the home in front of an altar covered in food offered to the ancestors. In my family, bulcho and sungmyo are performed before or after Chuseok, but not during because the graves are in Hamyang not very close to Gimhae where my in-laws now live and as traveling across the country this week is already a burden, even more traveling is out of the question. It’s estimated that 75% of the population travels around Chuseok, so it’s easy to see why we stay put once we make it south. This year the trains were booked up weeks in advance and we made our way down to Gimhae from Seoul by plane.
We wake up early and cleanse our bodies and dress in traditional clothing, a hanbok, or just nice clothes. My mother-in-law prepares all of the food days in advance and though I’m a daughter-in-law and should help in the kitchen in the morning, she usually shoos me into the living room with my husband and father-in-law with the assumption that I’ll be of no help with the Korean food preparation. My job with my husband, overseen by his father, is to set the altar table with all of the food in the proper place.
The table should be facing north and the food should be placed with the red food on the eastern end and the white food on the western end, meat on the eastern end and fish on the western end. This varies from family to family and city to city as I’ve learned that our table has a lot less meat than the tables up north. This makes sense since my family lives in a coastal area. There is more fish on our table and the fish are placed upside down than what you’d expect, so as they would be appropriate and right side up for the ancestors that are “sitting” on the other side of the table. The bowls of soup and rice that are brought through out the ceremony are placed on the table right side up to the ghosts as well. This caused some confusion in our house this year and a 5 minute conversation stalled the placement while father and son conversed.
In our family we perform the charye ceremony for seven ancestors spanning three generations on my husband’s father’s side. We perform the ceremony three times, one time for each generation. First the names of the ancestors are placed on the table and between each ceremony the names are removed and the new names are put in. Unlike the Seollal, Lunar New Year, charye ceremony in which we bring ddeokguk, rice cake soup, to the ancestors, for this ceremony for the harvest, we bring soup and rice to place on the table for the ancestors. A spoon is placed straight up in the rice and the chopsticks are placed on any dish on the table after being tapped on the table three times. We bow to the table twice to start the ceremony and then two people go up and kneel at the altar, one to pour the rice wine and one to take the cup, receive the rice wine, circle it three times to the left over some incense, before placing it on the table. Once this is completed, the men in the family and me, bow two times. We approach the table and empty the rice wine cups and fill them once more as before and retreat to bow twice more. On the third approach my mother-in-law takes the soup away and a bowl of water is placed on the table next to the rice. A spoonful of rice is taken from the bowl and placed into the water and the chopsticks are moved to another dish on the table as if the ancestors are partaking in a meal and trying everything. A few drops of rice wine top off the wine already in the cups and we back up to bow two times again. The bowls of soup and rice are cleared and we bow twice more before removing the names of the ancestors, replacing them with the next set of names and starting the ceremony once more. We do this full ceremony three times. At the end of the entire ceremony the pieces of paper with our ancestors names written on them are taken outside and burned.
After the ceremony, the food is removed from the table and our small family, just the four of us, eat as much as we can and drink the rice wine. Of course, since we just ate a ton of food and drank wine at 9 o’clock in the morning afterward it’s time for a nap. Games don’t really commence in our family until my husband’s sister comes with her husband and her two young children who just spent the morning at her husband’s family’s house. The day is spent eating, napping, eating some more, playing games, eating and ultimately sleeping for the night.