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Capt. Matthew J. Bowman, commander of the Walker Army Heliport in Taegu, South Korea, explains the content of a Chusok gift set given to local residents living adjacent to the heliport Friday. The Army's Area IV Support Activity has given out gift sets to local residents for seven years. Chusok is one of Korea's major annual holidays and is similar to Thanksgiving in the United States.
Capt. Matthew J. Bowman, commander of the Walker Army Heliport in Taegu, South Korea, explains the content of a Chusok gift set given to local residents living adjacent to the heliport Friday. The Army's Area IV Support Activity has given out gift sets to local residents for seven years. Chusok is one of Korea's major annual holidays and is similar to Thanksgiving in the United States. (Courtesy of the U.S. Army)

SEOUL — An estimated 40 million South Koreans were to hit the roads, rails and airways this weekend as the nation prepares to celebrate the biggest holiday of the year. And because Chusok — roughly the Korean equivalent of America’s Thanksgiving — falls on a Tuesday this year, most South Koreans won’t be at work Monday through Wednesday.

The exodus from the large cities to hometowns began Friday, with packed highways leading out of Seoul. Government officials estimated more than 20 million vehicles would be on the road during the holiday; flights to many regional destinations long have been sold out; and train tickets are scarce.

For U.S. military members, Chusok is a time to enjoy largely deserted city streets, providing a respite from South Korea’s notorious traffic. And most military units will take Monday and Tuesday off as a “training holiday.”

The holiday means limited base services, depending on installation.

Most base exchanges and commissaries will be closed either Monday or Tuesday — and in some cases, both days. Other services, such as banks or finance offices, will offer limited hours, officials said.

Government officials say traffic will peak Wednesday, with some five million vehicles streaming back into Seoul. Nearly 80 percent of South Koreans traveling for Chusok say they will use their own vehicles, according to Seoul city officials.

The drive from Seoul to Pusan — normally around five hours — likely will take more than 10 hours during the holiday.

And, according to the Bank of Korea, an estimated 4 trillion won in cash (around $3.5 billion) will change hands in the form of gifts, banquets and work bonuses.

What is Chusok?

Harvest, gratitude, family reunion and relaxation are the buzzwords for Chusok, just as they may bring to mind American Thanksgiving. But instead of turkey, South Koreans eat half-moon-shaped rice cakes called songpyon.

On Tuesday, most Koreans will get up early, dress in new clothes and have a family ceremony called charae, setting out special foods. They pay tribute to their ancestors and the traditional harvest season, then feast.

The charae table is an amalgam of traditional dishes — beef, chicken, fish, fruit, vegetables and songpyon, the rice cakes. But you won’t see the Korean staple kimchi. Ritual decrees that pepper powder and garlic, two key kimchi ingredients, are not allowed in charae dishes.

After completing charae, Koreans visit their ancestors’ graves, bowing and leaving some food from the feast.

– Stars and Stripes

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