One inheritance out of the human agricultural beginnings is the harvest festival. People gather to celebrate the earth’s abundant provision of the nutrients essential to physical health. I’d like to offer a brief reflection on the content of the harvest festival in two cultures, one in the East — Korea, called Chuseok, and one in the West — the United States, called “Thanksgiving.” At the outset, I remind the reader that as an American, I am far more familiar with Thanksgiving than with Chuseok.
The nation of Korea sets aside three days, starting from the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, as statutory holidays for Chuseok, originally called Hangawi (from the archaic Korean for “the great middle of autumn”).
A major Korean holiday, Chuseok, is intended to venerate the family ancestors. On the morning of Chuseok Day, songpyeon (half-moon-shaped Korean rice cakes) and other food is prepared with the year’s fresh harvest. Families prepare an offering table and visit tombs of their ancestors. They play and watch games and enjoy a festive atmosphere.
Thanksgiving is the same insofar as families gather, share particular kinds of foods, play and watch games and enjoy a festive atmosphere.
But there is a significant difference to Thanksgiving. Whereas “Chuseok” is a celebration of tribal identity, Thanksgiving celebrates God and the transcendence of race. America wins, right? Well, before we declare the West the winner, let’s think again.
What’s great about Thanksgiving
The fabled first Thanksgiving in 1621 came in the context of a small group of believers who risked their lives to create a new way of life centered upon the true worship of God. The celebration could not have taken place without the harmony of these Europeans with the native people of the land, the Wampanog Indians, a race other than their own, an Asiatic race. This is what Thanksgiving represents.
As Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, explained the story of the Pilgrims, after their winter of starvation, “they cleared the fields, planted, cultivated, and harvested the crop. And they attributed all their precious harvest to the grace of God. The beautiful tradition of Thanksgiving thus originated. At night, at dawn, in the morning and at noontime, they prayed to God. I am sure they prayed, ‘God, we want to build a place for You which must be better than the Old World. We want to build a place where You can dwell and be master.’” He also stated that without the hospitality of the native peoples at that point, the Pilgrims would not have survived.
President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, in 1863, some 240 years later after the first Thanksgiving, in the midst of a struggle over race — the Civil War. He was responding to the proposal of Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, who had made the proposal to several presidents. Thanksgiving had been celebrated on the level of states before that, chiefly northern states connected to New England, but it was not a national holiday. She proposed that it be national, to take place on the same day everywhere.
In his proclamation of the day, Lincoln recounted the progress of the nation and then wrote these beautiful words — well worth reading around your Thanksgiving table this month:
“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens …to set apart and observe …a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwells in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.” (October 3, 1863)
What’s great about Chuseok
These are noble words and ideas. But some would argue that America has lost them. Why? Because we have no celebration of our ancestors. We have lost the tie that binds us beyond generations. We have no annual day in which we, as a nation, commune as families with our forefathers and foremothers. This is what the Chuseok tradition of Korea provides. Young Unificationists who grew up with both traditions convey this.
Korean-American Unificationist Julie Owens, 23, of New Jersey, said her family primarily celebrates Chuseok because her mother is Korean. Whereas she and her family stay at home to observe Chuseok, for Thanksgiving they celebrate with other families.
“Thanksgiving feels like a second Chuseok, except I don’t have to go to school,” Owens told Unificationnews.com “The two holidays pretty much seem the same to me because my mom prepares Korean food both times. However, when we set the offering table for Chuseok I feel a great sense of gratitude towards my parents and ancestors, because if wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Satoe Sakuma, 19, of Chicago, shared her thoughts as well. “When we think of Thanksgiving, thoughts of mouth-watering turkey and mashed potatoes distinguish this day from all the others. People say that American Thanksgiving is similar to the Korean Chuseok, so naturally I got excited when my Korean aunt invited me to celebrate Chuseok with her. I had been craving some American food in this new sea of Asians (my Japanese-Korean family) that I started swimming in not too long ago.
“I was so surprised when my aunt didn't know what a turkey was. I explained to her it was like a big chicken; then I pulled up the handy Google Images and showed her the infamous turkey. She simply laughed and told me that they eat traditional Korean food such as half-moon shaped rice cakes called Songpyeon. In the morning of Chuseok, we went to pay respects and show our appreciation to our ancestors by visiting their tombs. Can you imagine going to the cemetery on Thanksgiving? ‘This isn't anything like Thanksgiving!’ I thought to myself.
“While eating bulgogi later that day, I realized that the only thing that is the same between Thanksgiving and Chuseok lies in the heart of gratitude. Giving thanks to everything throughout the year and re-positioning your heart for the coming year is an underlying theme that connects the West and the East. In the end, Korea turned out not to be as foreign as I thought. Happy Thanks-Chuseok-Giving!”