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Chuseok and the Charye Ceremony

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September 7 to 9, 2014 will be the Chuseok Holiday in Korea. Chuseok is one of Korea’s busiest and most important holidays. It is a time when immediate and distant relatives come together. For some it might be the only time when members will see each other all year. The holiday equivalent in other countries is Thanksgiving, but in Korea the giving of thanks is directed to all the ancestors and generations of the past―specifically the grandparents of the family.
Chuseok is not a celebration of food like in North America; it is a celebration of family and remembrance.

What is the Charye Ceremony?


The ceremony is held at the home of the eldest son of the oldest surviving generation of the family. If that person is not available, then the ceremony takes place at the home of second oldest son and so on. Preparation for the ceremony is of the utmost importance. The foods should be local and certain elaborations such as the departed’s favorite foods can be added to the table. The ceremonial table is usually a low floor table that is large enough to hold the food settings. Behind the table might be a folded altarpiece with Confucian proverbs or a naturalistic painting. The foods are set on special plates that are made of wood or brass. In the center of the food table is the sinwi or memorial tablet. This tablet has the names of the people being remembered. These days, paintings or photographs of the ancestors are sometimes used in place of the sinwi.
The food on the charye table is prepared and placed according to intricate rules. First of all, the foods can’t be made with garlic, onions, or red pepper for it is believed that these foods can prevent the spirits of the ancestors from coming to the offering. Red beans, fish without scales, and peaches are to be avoided for the same reason.

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The Charye Table Setting


The table should be placed looking toward the north, with the chopstick and spoon setting facing north as well. In my observation, the more nutritious and luxurious foods seem to be placed closest to the sinwi. So, in the first row, nearest to the sinwi, there is rice (during the New Year’s ceremony, rice cake soup replaces the rice and soup). In the next row are the meats, jeon (Korean pancakes), fish, and rice cakes called songpyeon.
The songpyeon are supposed to be in the shape of the crescent moon. They are often white or colored with green mugwort and are steamed with fragrant pine needles. In the following row there are candles and soups made from oxtail, beef, or fish. The following row has vegetables such as green spinach, yellow bean sprouts, white blanched turnip, and white kimchi.
The row at the end of the table has fruits such as red jujube, white chestnuts, orange persimmons (or dried persimmons), yellow melons, and red apples. On a smaller table at the end is a bowl where incense sticking out of sand sits. The smoke from the incense represents the heavens and the sand stands for the earth. Then to the right of the incense there can be a bottle of traditional liquor.

The Charye Ceremony


The ceremony starts with the lighting of candles and the sound of a brass spoon hitting a brass bowl. As the sound resonates, the eldest male descendent makes an offering of rice wine by pouring it into a cup. This is followed by his wife doing the same. Then they both bow before the altar.
The step is repeated by the second eldest and third eldest until all male heirs have given their respects.Then the meal ceremony starts by sticking the spoon into the center of the rice bowl with the end sticking out.
The family will bow before the altar and then leave the room, which will allow the ancestors to enjoy their meal.
The eldest comes in and moves a pair of chopsticks to a particular dish such as the fish or vegetable. This will be moved once more and then the family will bow.
To signal the end of the meal, tea is poured for the ancestors. The chime sounds once more and everyone bows twice and then the ancestors are gone until the ceremony is performed again the following year.
Finally, the family all gets together and shares a great feast.
The Charye Ceremony varies from family to family and from province to province. These days, variations include adding foreign fruits and vegetables like bananas or kiwi. Also some families will add their ancestor’s favorite desserts like chocolate pie. Regardless of all the variations, the importance of the ceremony is about remembrance and gratitude for the wisdom and lives of the family’s forbearers. I hope you will have a chance in your lifetime to partake in or observe the ceremony.


Traditional Markets to Get
Chuseok Foods

 

The remembrance ceremony requires days of preparation and a great deal of food. During this period, traditional markets, supermarkets, and department stores are all a buzz with activity as families are gathering all the necessary foods and table settings for the ceremony, which is called charye.

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Gwangjang Market
- For gift sets such as jujube, dried beef, and more
- #88,Yeji-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul
- Jongno 5-ga Station (Blue Line 1) Exit 8

Eunma Market
- For rice cakes and jeon
- #361, Daechi-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
- Daechi Station (Orange Line 3) Exit 3

Gyeongdong Market
- For fresh fruits and ginseng
- #1036, Jegi-dong, Dongdaemun-gu,Seoul
- Jegi Station (Blue Line 1) Exit 2

Park Sung Eun  parkse@agrinet.co.kr

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