On October 3, every year, the people of South Korea observe a very special occasion known as Gaecheonjeol which when translated means “the day the heavens open.” It is also popularly referred to as the National Foundation Day. Traditionally, it used to be a harvest festival but today it is mostly celebrated as an occasion that is marked by patriotic fervour and jubilant displays of pomp and grandeur including colourful processions and fireworks.

A national holiday, the celebrations are a curious mix of revelry and reverence. Displays of traditional dance and performing arts as well as Taekwondo martial arts take place at the Sejong Cultural Centre, the largest theatre complex in the capital city of Seoul. A significant though seemingly simple ceremony is performed on Mount Manisan, the highest mountain in Ganghwa-do island, attended by pilgrims from all around the country who gather in traditional white robes to cherish and revere the memory of the god who is believed to have created Korea.

On top of the mountain is an altar, resembling a fortress made by roughly-hewn stones dedicated to Dangun or Tangun, the legendary god who is believed to have founded Choson or Gojoseon, the ancient Kingdom of Korea. The origins of the celebration are steeped in an interesting mythological story of legendary proportions.

A story that traces the birth of Korea from the heavens

According to a popular myth, the legendary founder of Korea, Dangun Wanggeon, is believed to have descended from the heavens on Mount Manisan and founded a land which he called Choson implying a place as “calm and fresh as the morning.”

Gaecheonjeol or National Foundation Day is celebrated to commemorate the day Korea was founded by Dangun who is also known as Sandalwood King. That is why sandalwood incense sticks are burnt to worship the god in homes and public places.

Dangun is considered a descendant of the gods, son of Hwanung and the grandson of Hwanin, the King of the Heavens. The story that describes how Dangun was born is very popular in Korea. Hwanung expressed a desire to his father, Hwanin that he wished to live on earth with humans. In a popular version of the myth, a tiger and a bear prayed to Hwanung to transform them into humans. In order for them to fulfil their desire to become human, Hwanung put them to a test where he asked them to live in a cave away from sunlight for 100 days and gave them a sacred food to subsist on which included 20 cloves of garlic and a bunch of mugwort. The tiger gave up but the bear remained steadfast and after 21 days transformed into a woman. Dangun was born out of the union between Hwanung and the bear.

Public performances attended by Koreans and foreign dignitaries

The main highlights of the National Foundation Day celebrations or Gaecheonjeol are the special events which are held at the Sejong Centre for Performing Arts in Seoul. A colourful opening ceremony which occupies pride of place involves a spectacular display that combines traditional dance and art forms that depict in dramatic style the legends and myth surrounding Gaecheonjeol through enactment by the country’s foremost performers.

Since schools, banks and government offices are closed on this day, the celebrations at the Sejong Cultural Complex draws large crowds of people to watch the events which also include the traditional martial arts display of Taekwondo by the country’s famous practitioners. The Prime Minister also addresses the nation and along with the people, participates in singing the National Anthem and the swearing of the National Courtesy. Foreign dignitaries such as visiting heads of state, public personalities and ambassadors of other countries are invited as guests to partake in the celebrations at the Sejong Centre.

Processions on the streets feature Koreans wearing colourful costumes and masks that represent Dangun, the heavenly god who founded Korea. The young and the old are dressed in finery and congratulate each other.

Another important aspect of the celebration is the opportunity that it offers tourists to enjoy the culinary delights of Korea in addition to this cultural extravaganza. In restaurants and food stalls throughout the country, the popular traditional dish of Chapchae, a veritable melange of noodles and stir fried vegetables and meat mixed with garlic, soy sauce and sesame seeds is served. Among the other popular dishes served on the day are Samgyeospal and sweet dishes such as Suksilgwa and Jeonggwa made from fruits, nuts and honey.

So, while Gaecheonjeol or the National Foundation Day is an occasion for South Koreans to commemorate their traditions, it also provides them with an opportunity to showcase their rich culture and arts to the world community.