Beolcho Chuseok featured

How do Koreans Prepare for One of their Biggest Holidays, Chuseok, with “Beolcho” 벌초?

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, and Koreans celebrate Chuseok. Both stem from concepts of harvest, giving thanks, and family. But how do Koreans prepare, and what’s beolcho/벌초?

With this post I am aiming to give you a look into what modern Koreans do for one of their most important holidays. I hope it helps you understand at least one piece of Korean culture.

Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving, is celebrated around the time of harvesting rice. The exact dates are based on the lunar calendar, and it often falls around late September. In 2021, official holiday dates are September 20-22.

One component of Chuseok is beolcho 벌초. In a nutshell, this is when people take weed whackers or whatever tools available up a mountain (not necessarily the top) to their ancestors’ graves to cut the grass and tidy up the area. This is done sometime in the days or weeks before Chuseok.

Here is my Korean family’s grave area before we started cutting this year.

A grassy grave area with tall grass before cutting for beolcho surrounded by trees

Korean graves are marked by a small dome or mound along with the gravestone. They are usually somewhere up on a mountainside or hill. It is these mounds and surrounding areas where people cut the grass.

Cemeteries do exist in Korea, but grave areas like this are different and are often just a random area on a mountainside for a single family. They are not maintained by anyone since the previous year’s beolcho.

This year for beolcho I met some of my Korean family members on August 28, 2021, at my mother-in-law’s house in the village at 7am while it was still cool. It was just five of us men that went. My mother-in-law noticed me in short sleeves, so she had me put on one of her toshis, or 토시, an add-on sleeve, which I realized later was definitely helpful against the mosquitos and handing bundles of chopped weeds and grass.

A sleeve cover on an arm

We packed and drove just a few minutes to the mountain next to the village. It is maybe a 10 minute walk up the mountainside to our family’s graves. We carried all our gear including weed whackers, coolers, a grill, etc.

A person with a weed whacker walking up a mountainside for beolcho

The first thing we did when we arrived was to clear out an area to put down a tarp, and then we boiled some hot water for instant coffee.

People sitting around a tarp in the grass drinking coffee

We had a couple weed whackers and a couple rakes.

Weed whackers and rakes laying in the grass

We got busy cutting and raking away the grass and weeds off to the sides. One year we ran into a hive of bees in the grass. Fortunately no one was injured.

I had to leave early for a class this year, but 2 years ago I stuck around the whole time. We cooked ramen noodles before going back down. Koreans might also do a series of bows next to the graves when finished.

Unlike beolcho, around the actual day of Chuseok, the whole family goes to the graves together. Some Koreans practice ancestral worship. For others it could be simply a visit to remember their loved ones.

Last year we took our 8-month old son Noah with us up the mountain on October 2, 2020.

Noah in a stroller next to burial mounds

It was fun to have him with us.

People gathered around baby Noah in a stroller

One of my in-laws shared with me some eoleum, or 어름, a healthy, white fruit with black seeds that grows in Korea’s mountains.

After some time there, we came back down and continued hanging out at the house in the village. Like American Thanksgiving, Chuseok involves food and family time.

Family members walking down the mountain

Other Asian cultures like China celebrate “mid-autumn festival” around this time. Yet I hope this post helped you learn a little about Korean culture and beolcho around Chuseok.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *