Tag Archives: korean folk festivals

Korean Ancestral Commemoration Rites

Main Performance:

The jesa (제사) is traditional Korean ceremony that honors the family’s ancestors as well as deceased family members, particularly parents. It is a fairly large event that involves the extended family of the deceased parent to gather at the house of the eldest child, prepare food, and engage in a ceremony with specific steps. It is celebrated on different days for every family because it held on the day before the death of the deceased persons being honored. Back in Korea we’d have your uncles and aunts show up to commemorate your grandparents but we’re the only ones here in America so your mother doesn’t get as much help as she usually does. Even when if this isn’t even technically her own family that she’s making offerings for, she’s still the the only person who puts in this much effort. You also remember the steps better than I do these days.

The steps are as follows:

  1. The spirits of those who are to be honored are welcomed by an open door.
  2. The spirits are seated at the table before everyone else with food already prepared for them. The spirits are represented by a wooden plaque adorned with a photograph of themselves.
  3. An incense placed upon a bowl of uncooked rice is prepared between two lit candles and the eldest son of the spirits and their siblings or children pour glasses of rice or plum wine.
  4. Wine is poured three times until the cup is full and the cups are then rotated around the smoking incense three times, clockwise.
  5. The cups are placed by the bowls of the spirits and the ones who immediately poured and placed the drinks bow to the spirits. Men do two large bows and one half-bow while women do four half-bows.
  6. The above is repeated by the number of children of the deceased are present.
  7. Once the above step is completed, the spirits’ utensils are placed onto their favorites among the prepared food and the rest of the attendees excuse themselves to another room so the spirits may enjoy their meal alone.
  8. For a couple minutes, the gathered family engage in small talk, reminisce, and exchange pleasantries for a couple minutes before returning to the dining area.
  9. Steps 4 and 5 are repeated one last time and the spirits are led out to an open door and now the family is allowed to eat properly.
  10. The bowls that contained the rice and soup that the spirits would have eaten are considered to be blessed and are offered to those who need the ancestor’s blessings the most.


The informant is my father who has engaged in this ceremony longer than I have been alive. As he is the oldest among his three siblings, our house was where my father’s side of the family used to convene and celebrate together with as per tradition dictates that the eldest son continues the tradition. My father mentions how my mother has been diligent in her work to continue this tradition as she used to get help from my aunts in preparing the food but now she does all of the work alone for a ceremony honoring my father’s parents instead of any on her own side. Recently my mother receives help from my grandmother but since she is not directly related to my father’s parents, she does not partake in the ritual itself.


Every October 10th and November 30th, by Lunar Calendar dates, my family engages in these rituals and I’ve asked my father and mother many times about the procedure. Before long I was the one who remembered most of the steps.

My Thoughts:

Despite only having met my paternal grandparents only once or twice before their passing, this ceremony is something that has been ingrained in my life for as long as I could remember. The eldest son’s home becomes the liminal ground where the living descendants commune with the spirits of the deceased. Looking up articles of the ritual now, it appears that me and my family are skipping a number of steps but the way we’ve done it is how it has been for at least 30+ years. I always used to watch my father and my uncles do the steps back in Korea but after coming to the States, I began to take their place in placing offerings to my grandparents. The dates however do make it a pain for my mother who has to prepare not only for American Thanksgiving but also for preparing for my grandfather’s jesa. My parents often joke about how no other Korean family engages in this practice anymore and it made me recently realize that my parents being vaguely irreligious is probably the reason why. Many other Korean families are heavily Christian and have since abandoned the traditional ways which almost makes me a bit sad with how Westernization has started to blot out Korean culture.

Chunhyang Festival (춘향제)

Context : 

My informant is an adult female who works as a photographer in Korea. She specializes in taking photos and filming festivals around Korea and has been working in the photography industry for 7 years. Here, she is describing the Chunhyang Festival that is held in Namwon city of the Jeollabuk-Do area of Korea. She attended this festival 4 years ago and she is identified as Y in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was later translated into English. 

Y :

Chunhyang Festival is an annual festival held by and in the city of Namwon. This festival is based on the traditional Korean folk love story called “Chunhyangjeon (Story of Chunhyang)”, where Chunhyang, a female protagonist from a very poor family falls in love with Mongryong, a male protagonist from a wealthy family. Honestly, it’s a pretty obvious storyline. The class differences between the characters almost rips them apart, but their true love always finds a way and ends with a happily ever after Disney-like ending. This story was set in Namwon city and that’s the reason why the city spends a lot of money in this festival every year.

During the festival, there are several events that take place. To name a few, there is a Pansori (traditional Korean music) performance of the story, a dance performance, a night market, and a beauty pageant. Because in the story, Mongryong first falls in love with Chunhyang for her outstanding looks, a beauty pageant is absolutely one of the main events. Female participants, ranging from children to grandmothers, come out in their own Hanboks (traditional Korean clothing/dress) that they own and walk with the parade while non-participants cheer for them. 

Analysis :

As this festival is one of the most well known local festivals in Korea, even though I haven’t attended it yet, I’ve heard a lot of stories about it. I like how people developed a folk love story into a festival and celebrates it annually by gathering participants. This festival is also significant in the sense that it’s not only a show where people sit down and passively enjoy the show; people dress up with costumes they have prepared themselves and join in the performance and thus becomes an active bearer of the folk story and folk culture. The Chunhyang Festival lets everyone have a chance to enjoy the performances and events regardless of age or gender. 

The movie version of Chunhyangjeon was made too, under the name “The Love Story of Chunhyang”. It was directed by Hong Seong-Gi and was released in 1961. 

Gokwoosari Yeonggwang Gulbi (Dried Yellow Corvina) Festival (곡우사리 영광굴비축제)

Context : 

My informant is an adult female who works as a photographer in Korea. She specializes in taking photos and filming festivals around Korea and has been working in the photography industry for 7 years. Here, she is describing the Gulbi Festival of the Yeonggwang area of South Korea. She attended this festival several years ago and he is identified as Y in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was later translated into English. 

Y : This festival is not considered as one of the most famous festivals in Korea. However, the Yeonggwang area has been known for their gulbi (dried yellow corvina) for a very long time as the city developed it as their mascot and special regional product. During the festival, they would hold events such as storytelling behind the development of gulbi business of Yeonggwang, food tasting event that has gulbi in it, gulbi cooking activity, and more. They would also call local traditional music performance companies and hold performances. 

Analysis :

I think this festival is an example of folk marketing. While the city is well known for their dried yellow corvina, the city chose to step up from that and connect it with the local folklores and make a festival out of it. This is a marketing strategy that benefits all people who are involved in the festival; the fisherman can sell more fish, the city council can make more money from the festival and make the local area known to the public, local folklore storytellers can spread the local folktales to the audience (passive bearers) and people who attend the festival can buy local goods in a cheaper price. 

Korean Mid-Autumn Festival

Main Piece:

This is a summary of mid-autumn festival in Korea that I talked to my mom about.

Mid-Autumn festival is August 15th on the lunar calendar and falls around mid-September to October. It is called “Chu-seok” and is kind of like Korean thanksgiving in that it is a seasonal holiday that celebrates harvest. The whole family gathers around and make “songpyeon” together, which is a half-moon shaped rice-cake with filling inside. The shape and filling vary from household and region. Some put in mashed beans or chesnuts but a more popular filling for children is combination of sesame seed and sugar.

My mom says she grew up eating the sesame seed and sugar songpyeon and had the mashed beans filling for the first time when she married my dad. The rest of the food eaten at chu-seok is similar to those eaten during lunar new year—meats, savoury pancakes.


I knew about Korean mid-autumn festival from participating in them when I was younger but didn’t know the exact details of the celebration and thought I would ask my mom to see if she had any insights about the tradition.


This was collected in an interview with my mom in a casual setting.  I thought it would be an interesting collection for this project because different countries celebrate Mid-Autumn festival differently.


I don’t think mid-autumn festival was very big in my family. We had songpyeon but that was about it. I’m not sure if there are any activities that we do like sebae in New Year (refer to this post on Korean Lunar New Year for more information about this activity). I think traditionally, there were activities, but they haven’t really been kept today. Instead, I think Chuseok is about spending time with family and celebrating the year’s harvest.