Every year on October 3, South Korea erupts with parades, festivals, parties and other activities in celebration of National Foundation Day.
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Known traditionally as Gaecheonjeol, which translates roughly as “Opening Sky Day” or “Festival of the Opening of Heaven”, National Foundation Day is part of a rich history celebrating the central foundation myth of the ancient Korean kingdom of Gojoseon. The national holiday and the historical myth upon which it is based have long been an integral part of the Korean national identity.
The Dangun Myth
The basis for the modern National Foundation Day can be traced to the “Samgungnyusa,” or “Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms,” which is a collection of Korean legends and historical accounts believed to have been written in approximately 1281. According to one such legend, Hwanung – who was the son of Hwanin, the “Lord of Heaven” – deeply desired to live among the valleys and the forests of the earth. On October 3, 2457 B.C., he descended from Heaven to a sandalwood tree on Baekdu Mountain and founded Sinsi, the “City of God.”
According to the myth, upon hearing the prayers of a tiger and a bear nearby who wished to be human, Hwanung sent them into a cave to stay for 100 days. The tiger soon gave up, but the bear persevered and was transformed into a woman, whom Hwanung took as his wife. Together, they bore a son named Dangun Wanggeom who, in 2333 B.C., ascended to his father’s throne and formed the first kingdom of Joseon. The kingdom is known today as Gojoseon, or “Old Joseon,” to differentiate it from a subsequent kingdom of Joseon which was formed several millennia later.
Though traditions have evolved over time, the commemoration of the “Festival of the Opening of Heaven” has very deep roots throughout Korea. In ancient times, the day was celebrated with a traditional harvest festival in which participants honoured their ancestors, showed thankfulness for a good harvest and participated in various religious practices and displays. Though the exact customs and observances may have varied, this basic observance was common across many different kingdoms and ethnic groups. The celebrations were most often held on the third day of the tenth month on the lunar calendar.
National Foundation Day became an officially recognised holiday in 1909, and in 1949, its date was officially updated to October 3 on the Gregorian calendar. One of the most prominent ways National Foundation Day is celebrated in modern times is with a ceremony at the Chamseongdan altar in Dangun Wanggeom’s honour. Chamseongdan is located at the summit of Mt. Manisan on Ganghwado Island in South Korea, and legend holds that the altar was constructed by Dangun himself. Another highlight of the day takes place at the Sejong Centre for Performing Arts in Seoul, South Korea, where traditional displays of art, dance and music are capped off with a re-enactment of the events in the Korean foundation myth.
In more private ceremonies, many Koreans burn sandalwood in honour of Hwanung’s descendence from Heaven near the base of a sandalwood tree. Parades and festivals are hosted throughout South Korea, many of them attended by Koreans dressed in traditional costumes and masks honouring the legend of Dangun. Even South Korean expatriates often celebrate the holiday, honouring the unifying myth that is so central to Korean culture. The day also features a tremendous display of traditional Korean foods, most notably japchae, samgyeopsal and jeonggwa.