SEOUL — Millions of South Koreans are expected to travel to their hometowns next weekend for Chuseok, the country’s annual harvest festival and second-biggest holiday, leaving Seoul a virtual ghost town and jamming the country’s roads.
Chuseok is Sept. 14 this year, although the holiday officially runs Sept. 13-15, with Chuseok activities taking place for several days before and after the weekend. U.S. Forces Korea personnel also will be off Sept. 15.
The holiday is believed to have started between 600 and 900 A.D. and is comparable to Thanksgiving in the United States because of its focus on family and food, said Mark Monahan, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Maryland in Seoul.
"Basically, Chuseok is a family affair," Monahan said. "The Korean farmers, they worked almost 24 hours a day every day until Chuseok. They’ve done hard work all year, and Chuseok is the day they get off and relax."
Monahan said about 75 percent of South Koreans travel to their hometowns during the holiday.
U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Walter Sharp recently posted a message on USFK’s Web site saying that travel "is extremely difficult due to traffic jams on freeways and major rural routes."
In recent years, Stripes has reported as many as 70 million people on the roads during Chuseok weekend.
Families celebrate Chuseok by preparing a ceremonial table of food for their ancestors and visiting their graves. They traditionally eat songpyeon, a half-moon-shaped rice cake filled with sesame seeds or chestnut paste.
South Korea’s largest holiday is Lunar New Year, celebrated in January or February.