Chuseok is soon to be upon us. If the biggest holiday of the first half of the year is Seollal (설날, Lunar New Year’s Day), then the biggest holiday of the second half of the year is undoubtedly Chuseok (추석). Chuseok is the mid-autumn festival celebrated on the 15th day of August of the lunar calendar, which is September 30th this year. It is usually a three day holiday – something quite rare in Korea – emphasizing the importance of this holiday.
Chuseok is generally called the “Korean Thanksgiving” and basically that is what it is: a festival to celebrate the harvest and the bounty of autumn. In Korea, however, there is much emphasis on one’s ancestors. People go back to their hometowns to get together with their families to tend the ancestors’ graves and give thanks to them through solemn ancestral rites.
Naturally, because it is a holiday celebrating the harvest, food becomes a central focus. Special Chuseok foods like songpyeon (송편), rice cakes in crescent shapes with various fillings, are made together as a family, with the usual holiday foods of jeon (전) and japchae (잡채) also making an appearance. Because it is the harvest season, there would be fruit in abundance, too.
Although called by different names depending on the era, Chuseok has been celebrated in Korea for centuries. Celebrating the harvest and the full moon also come hand in hand, as the full moon symbolizes fecundity and prosperity. Since the brightest and fullest moon is said to rise on Chuseok, it is more than reason enough for celebration. Among the traditional games played on Chuseok, the dance Ganggangsullae (강강술래) consists of people holding hands, singing and dancing in circles under the bright full moon.
So what about the rabbit in the moon? In Korea, you can’t talk about the full moon without thinking about the rabbit. I know that the full moon brings upon images of the “Man in the Moon” in some western cultures, but here, it’s the rabbit.
The rabbit in the moon is also called the “jade rabbit” (옥토끼), which is common in the folklore of not only Korea, but also China, Japan, and other countries. In Chinese folklore the rabbit is busily pounding a special medicine in a mortar for the Goddess of the Moon; in Korea, the rabbit is busily pounding rice to make tteok (떡, ddeok, rice cakes); in both cases, it is making an essence of life.
But why is there a rabbit in the moon? Legend says there once was a village where a rabbit, a fox, and a monkey resided. The three devoted themselves to Buddhism and spent much time in its study and practice. One day, the Emperor of the Heavens looked upon them and to test their faith, told them to bring him something to eat. The three set off to fulfill his wish. Consequently, the fox returned with fish, the monkey with fruit, and the rabbit, who could do nothing but gather grass, lit a fire with it and jumped in, offering his own self. His commitment earned the approval of the Emperor and he was placed in the moon as its guardian, with “smoke” surrounding him as a reminder of his endeavor.
This legend varies in different cultures: sometimes the Emperor of the Heavens is disguised as a poor old man, sometimes it’s not the three animals mentioned above but others. The actions of the rabbit remain consistent, however, and the results of his deed as well.
Along with the rabbit, in the Korean versions, the gyesu tree (계수나무) is always mentioned, i.e. the Korean laurel/cinnamon tree. (Latin: cercidiphyllum japonicum.) Apparently the rabbit is standing under the gyesu tree while pounding on its mortar. Other folk tales and legends also mention the tree quite often, as it is known to be a sturdy, long living tree, and its bark (as cinnamon) has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries.
Because the rabbit signifies fecundit, it is not surprising that it is paired with the gyesu tree to signify a long, bountiful, and happy life – something you wish for while gazing at the full moon.
The image of the rabbit in the moon and the gyesu tree is so steadfast in Korean culture that it shows up in a famous children’s song, “Half-moon” (반달), which was written and composed by the songwriter Yoon Geuk-young (윤극영) in 1924. (The song is better known for its first verse and some people think it is the title, but it’s not.) The English version is quite good, as it was translated in sync with the melody. You can listen to the song here.
The lyrics are: 푸른 하늘 은하수 하얀 쪽배엔 계수나무 한 나무 토끼 한마리 돛대도 아니 달고 삿대도 없이 가기도 잘도 간다 서쪽 나라로
High above the deep blue sky, down the Milky Way, Rides a ship without a sail, with no oars they say, Ship of white, its only crew, is a rabbit white, Westward it floats along, silently through the night.
Naturally, it isn’t only during Chuseok when you can see the rabbit in the moon. (After all, the full moon comes around every month.) But perhaps because people thought the rabbit looked lonely up there, modern day interpretations usually depict two rabbits happily making tteok together, which makes it even more significant for Chuseok, a time for family and friends to come together.
So when Chuseok comes around, treat yourself to all the delicious food you can, head outside with loved ones to catch a glimpse of the rabbit in the bright full moon, and have a joyful dancing round of Ganggangsullae, too. Happy Chuseok, everyone!