The more things change, the more they stay the same. Recently I saw the film Prometheus (directed by Ridley Scott) in which a group of astronaut anthropologists cross the universe to discover the origins of mankind on Earth. They hoped to meet their makers (named Engineers) and ask the most obvious question: Why are we here?
The impetus for their journey was a series of similar cave paintings the scientists discovered that spanned the course of prehistory from 30,000 BC until 2,000 BC each of which included a star map that was theorized to be an astrological guide to the home planet of our creators. I couldn’t have watched the film at a more appropriate time of year because it is during this season that cultures all over the world commemorate the harvest. Giving thanks for the many blessings we have in our lives has become synonymous with farmers yielding bountiful crops at the end of the growing season, on or near the Autumn Equinox.
Earth’s position relative to other celestial bodies (the sun, moon, and certain visible planets) has been observed throughout our history dating back to the ancient civilizations of antiquity. Back then, we had little comprehension of the world around us but we were completely aware that the sun rose and set every day and with it we received light, warmth, and (we didn’t know the word yet) photosynthesis. Mankind also observed that this cycle repeated every year, from birth to life to death and then rebirth again every spring as the world awakened anew. For tens of thousands of years, man looked to the sky for answers, to tell stories, and ponder the great questions of existence (now we have reality tv). But their understanding of the universe led to all of the seasonal festivals and celebrations that we still continue to observe every year even to this day.
I don’t have to tell you that our harvest festival in North America is literally called Thanksgiving (aptly named) and we spend time eating a lot of wonderful food and sharing the table with loved ones (and watching football). But all over the world at different times between September and November, every culture has their own way of giving thanks for what they’ve been given; traditions that in some cases have been passed down for thousands of years (except for watching football). As prehistoric man developed the use of fire and then the wheel and then tools, so too grew our society and we moved from nomadic tribes into small villages which became cities and then nations. Everything is connected through our history even across vast oceans. It is this connection to which the Korean people pay homage during their thanksgiving festival known as Chuseok.
Chuseok takes place on the day of the first full moon following the equinox, also known as the Harvest Moon. Families travel all over the country to their ancestral homelands to honor those who came before. It is believed that their good fortune today is directly related to the hard work of past. They visit grandparents and great-grandparents, and prepare lavish feasts.
Modern customs include:
- Charye – Early morning memorial service held privately in people’s homes during which they gather to give thanks and pray for their ancestors.
- Beolcho & Seongmyo – Both the visiting of the ancestral graves as well as the clearing of weeds and sprucing up the tombs of their long dead family members. It is considered a duty and completed every year with the utmost respect and honor.
- Ganggangsullae – Women dressed in Hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) join hands in a circle dancing and singing together. It is interesting to note that this dance dates back to the Joseon Dynasty (1392) when the Korean army used to dress the young women of the village in military uniforms and had them circle the mountains to make enemy troops think the military was greater in number than it actually was.
- Ssireum – Wrestling competitions to determine the strongest man in Korea that take place in a large, circular sand pit where representatives from each village fight until there is only one standing.
- Songpyeon – Traditional Chuseok rice cakes, the size of small golf balls, which are prepared by filling rice dough with sesame seeds, beans, red beans, chestnuts, or other nutritious ingredients and steamed. You can try to make it at home!
This Chuseok I had the unique opportunity to spend it with a Korean friend and his family. And much to my surprise, it wasn’t that much different than Thanksgiving back home. The women did the cooking while the men lounged around shooting the shit (again no football). Then everyone sat down and ate food and talked (most of which I couldn’t understand but they tried). And people seemed to generally enjoy the food and the company. Drinks were poured and toasts given and we did a lot of laughing. It was very simple yet there was something very pure and honest about it. Often people in western culture feel obligated during the holidays to visit with family however in Korea, it is their sacred duty to honor their ancestors and not a single thing felt insincere. They took pride in every little task.
So the questions Ridley Scott sets out to answer (or at least posit) in his film coupled with my Chuseok experience have led me to a single conclusion…
People are all the same.
We aren’t as different as we think we are and life hasn’t changed that much in the past few thousand years. Each and every human is connected to each other and to our ancestors. And no matter what continent we’re from, we all essentially want the same things from our lives: a sense of purpose, to provide for our families, laugh and enjoy being alive, and raise our children. Ancient man looked to the cosmos for answers and although we haven’t yet found them all, everyone looks up at the same sky with the same hopes and the same dreams. I don’t know about you but the thought of that fills me with comfort.
PS – Sorry I didn’t get any photos, I felt it would’ve been disrespectful.