The rabbit on the moon

Ever looked at the man on the moon? Well, in Korea, and other parts of far east Asia, people can see the outline of a rabbit in the dark patches of the moon’s surface. The story varies in Chinese and Japanese folklore, but according to Korean legend, the rabbit on the moon, known as daltokki (달토끼), can be seen pounding the ingredients for rice cakes with a pestle and mortar. Both the rabbit and the full moon symbolise long life and prosperity so when you see a full moon, it is custom to make a wish.

But why a rabbit? According to a traditional Buddhist tale, the ruler of heaven comes down to earth in disguise. He comes upon a fox, a monkey and a rabbit and in a test of their faith, he begs them for food. The fox brings him a fish and the monkey gathers some fruit. However, the rabbit offers himself as food and throws himself onto the fire, but somehow he doesn’t get burned. The man reveals himself, and in honour of the rabbit’s selflessness he takes it up to the heavens with him, and imprints his image on the moon for eternity so people can look at it and remember what he was prepared to do.

Chuseok 2012 추석

Chuseok (추석) is the Korean thanksgiving holiday to celebrate the harvest, and it is the biggest celebration in the Korean calendar. Chuseok falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which this year was September 30th, and the day before and the day after are also given as holiday to allow city dwellers to visit their hometowns. Chuseok can also be known as Hangawi (한가위), which literally translates as the ‘ides of August’.

The origins of Chuseok are a little unclear, but many Koreans trace the holiday back to ancient worship of the moon. The full moon was considered a special and meaningful event, and so the harvest celebrations were always held on the day of a full moon. Even today it is traditional to make a wish to the ‘Moon Rabbit‘ on Chuseok.

Dancing beneath the harvest full moon

As with Seollal (Lunar New Year in February), Chuseok sees a mass exodus out of Seoul and Korea’s other main cities, as everyone heads to their hometowns in the countryside to visit their relatives and pay their respects to the spirits of their ancestors. For married women, that means visiting their husband’s family and relatives. In the days running up to Chuseok many Koreans tend the tombs of their ancestors, and on the morning of Chuseok a ceremony (차례) is held, offering traditional food and drink to the deceased. A good harvest is often attributed to the blessing of one’s ancestors.

Chuseok 차례 ceremonial table

Food is an important part of Chuseok, and can be very stressful for the women of the family as they have to prepare so much food. Japchae (잡채 is a dish made from clear noodles stir fried in sesame oil with various vegetables and sometimes meat), songpyeon (송편 small, crescent-shaped rice cakes filled with honey, red bean paste or chestnut paste steamed on a bed of pine needles), seasonal fruits, baekju (a kind of rice wine), and freshly harvested rice are among the most popular Chuseok foods.

In addition to the 차례 ceremony, typical Chuseok activities include wearing hanbok (traditional Korean dress), playing folk games, singing, and dancing beneath the full moon.

Happy Chuseok everyone!