The Chuseok harvest festival, a three-day holiday which falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, is almost upon us and the rush to make preparations is in high gear.
Transportation issues, rising food prices, among other issues, is an annual headache endured by everyone at this time of year.
As with many other countries, the Korean people’s connection to the land, and the related traditional seasonal customs, have certainly weakened over past decades. Chuseok, however, is a major exception as it is observed by the vast majority Korean families.
Prior to this, which this year is on Sept. 8, is another difficult job connected to Chuseok called Beolcho, or the tidying up of family graves.
This is a tradition we see all over Korea, but Jeju Islanders in particular take it extremely seriously.
There is a Korean proverb which states, “A farmer in May is a philosopher in August.” Once the harvest is in, farmers are able to relax for the first time that season. They can spend time with their families and tend to the ancestral rituals.
Beolcho is traditionally observed from the 1st day of eighth lunar month through to the day before Chuseok. This year that was August 25.
Currently families are out in the countryside, tending to their family graves — earthen mounds covered with grass and surrounded by a low stone wall.
It’s hard work. Often just getting to the grave site is difficult, let alone all the manual labor of cutting the grass, pulling weeds, generally tidying up. And Korean families are certainly smaller today, so there are fewer people to actually do the work.
Once the work is complete, though, a small ritual offering of ceremonial food and drink, usually fruit, rice cakes, and some sort of alcoholic beverage is offered to the dead relatives. This offering of food, however, is not as important as it is on Chuseok day. It’s more to do with the Korean custom of not coming empty handed — which is considered rude.
Next, as a group, the family — often many generations — make two deep bows called keunjeol. This goes back to Confucian philosophy and its emphasis on honoring the sacrifices one’s parents, and elders, made for family and society.
So why are Jeju islanders especially devoted to the carrying out their Beolcho duties?
Some speculate that the simple, harsh life of Jeju’s farmers, their families, and the small island community as a whole, made such rituals all the more important. Not unlike the design of Jeju traditional homes and stone fences, which are short and squat to minimize wear and tear from the harsh island winds, Beolcho, too, brought families together.
Another difference from the mainland is Jeju people expect their relatives, especially male relatives, to show up and contribute their time and effort to tidy the grave sites. There are very, very few excuses for bowing out, though if it is impossible to make it, then one will certainly contribute substantial sums of money to the family’s Chuseok fund.
Many islanders actually consider Beolcho to be more important than Chuseok, a sentiment not shared on the mainland.
Jeju’s Beolcho observances also extend to the education system.
Unlike on the mainland, elementary schools through universities have what is called a Beolcho Banghak, or Beolcho Break. These institutions have the option to close for an entire day during this period to allow for their students to help tend to their family graves.
Companies here, too, are open to the idea of giving a worker a day off to join in the Beolcho work, if their calendars require it.
There are a variety of problems related to traditions like Beolcho and Chuseok, when everyone in the country is doing the same thing basically at the same time.
When it comes to competition for air and bus tickets, and the huge traffic jams at this time of year, the root of the problem is that in the past, families tended to live, grow, and remain in their respective areas or villages.
Today, however, nearly a quarter of the Korean population lives in greater metropolitan Seoul.
Beolcho also involves working outdoors for many hours, using tools to cut grass which most people are unfamiliar with, and so reports of injuries from the knives and lawn mowers increase at this time of year.
Heat-related illnesses, mosquitoes, snakes, and ticks pose a hazard to families who spend many hours tidying up the graves.
Drunk driving also becomes a problem as people return home after a long day tidying their ancestors’ graves and consuming the ceremonial alcoholic beverages they brought with them earlier. Police set up extra DUI stops at key intersections around the island during Beolcho.
Though there is no doubt Beolcho and Chuseok observances are in no danger of being abandoned in Korea, things are changing.
Smaller family sizes and an aging population mean that some families don’t have enough hands to help out, so they have to hire what are called Beolcho service providers to accompany families and show them how to conduct the Beolcho work.
Some of these are private companies, while others are staffed by volunteers.
Next week: Chuseok observances. This a reworked article, written by the author, which first appeared on KCTV English News. — Ed.