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History of Chuseok gifts

By Korea Herald

Published : Sept. 6, 2013 - 21:07

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Thanksgiving on the lunar calendar has been celebrated all across Asia for a very long time.

It was the time when people ― even married women who were tacitly restrained from visiting their mothers and fathers after getting married and living with the in-laws ― got together and tried to convey their good status by giving gifts.

“After women served all the holiday visitors they were allowed to visit their own parents for a short period of time. Longing for that day for a year, the daughters would make socks or underwear for their parents and then take them to their home along with some rice cake. Sometimes the mother-in-law would send gifts for her in-laws to show respect. The mother would also prepare some gifts, which meant that everything was going well in the family,” said Lee Kwan-ho, an official at the National Folk Museum.

Sometimes, if the daughter could not spare the time to go to her home, the mother and the daughter would meet up in the middle and swap gifts. “The holiday was always a little emotional for women,” Lee said.

“Usually when relatives gathered at one place, they would bring eggs or meat to thank the hostess for the invitation.”

In the 1960s, one of the most cherished gifts was sponge cake, which uses a lot of sugar, egg and milk ― all of which were very rare.

“Sponge cake represented delicacy and luxury. Whenever we had a valuable guest, we would serve the cake with milk. When they left, children were busy eating it up,” recalled Kim Mun-hee, a 57-year-old housewife. Also among the popular gifts were soy sauce, dress shirts and socks, as well as candy for children.

Administrative leaders would send pork and beef to less-privileged communities. They would slaughter the animals to use the meat for religious rituals for the ancestors, and eat it later. Old newspapers reported that Korean descendants in Japan and America would send pencils, notebooks and other stationery to their kin in Korea.

Donga Ilbo newspaper in 1979 interviewed a set of industrial workers asking about their Chuseok gifts for their family. A 19-year-old worker said, “Twelve packs of cigarettes for father, socks for all siblings.” An 18-year-old girl answered, “Ginger tea and a T-shirt for mother and a jar of coffee for my sister.” A 17-year-old worker said she would buy a watch for her father and stationery for her little brother.

In the 1970s, gift vouchers from department stores ― which were regarded as luxury shopping spots ― emerged as a good option for gifts. Department stores heavily advertised Chuseok gift packages in newspapers. Vouchers became more convenient and according to a newspaper in 1973, about 70 percent of a high-end department store’s sales came from voucher sales.

According to a recent survey by Lotte Mart, 48 percent of respondents prefer vouchers over other gifts because one can choose what they want to buy. While gift giving has changed over the years, the central holiday spirit, that of sharing, has been handed down over centuries.

By Bae Ji-sook (baejisook@heraldcorp.com)