There are three different ceremonies preformed as part of Chuseok; Bulcho, Seongmyo, and Charye. Bulcho is when families visit the graves of ancestors and clear away weeds and debris as a sign of devotion and respect for your family it is done about a month before Chuseok, but can happen after. Seongmyo is the actual visiting of the grave site and it involves a bowing ceremony. Charye is done at the home in front of an altar of food offered to the ancestors on the morning of Chuseok. Traditional Korean belief is that when people die they watch over their families for four generations, during this time they are seen as part of the family and the relationship is reaffirmed on special days. The ceremonies are to show appreciation and respect for the ancestors, who return to enjoy the holiday food prepared for them.
As with any ritual the setting of the altar space is important, I will share what I have found to be general rules please note that each region has some variables. For example in a Buddhist home spicy vegetables (garlic, chives, spicy peppers) would be avoided because it is believed that they disturb the spirits. A screen is placed to the north, with an altar/table before it. The spirits will visit from the north and enjoy their feast from behind the screen. On the north side of the table a wooden tablet (wipae) used to hold a paper (jibang) with the name, title, and place of origin of the ancestor written vertically in black. Sometimes the wipae is not used. This is the honored place for that ancestor and as food is placed out it should be set so that the departed can eat from this position. Here is an example made all in wood.
The food is prepared to be beautiful, fresh, and taste wonderful. You want to serve your ancestors the best you have to offer. Special lacquered dishes are used to present the food which should be stacked tall and symmetrically. Food is arranged with the red foods to the east and white foods to the west, and each row is as follows; southern most row is dessert type goods so fruits, cakes, and cookies (what the ancestor would eat last); next row side dishes, vegetables, Kimchi, salted and fermented fish dishes, dried fish goes here too; next row toward the screen is for soup there could be as few as 3 kinds or as many as 7 and a dish of soy sauce for seasoning, next are the meats - fish should have its head which points east and the back of the fish toward you so it is ready to be served to the honored guest; closest to the screen the main dish in Korean cuisine, that means rice, rice cakes and soup here there should be as many rice bowls as there are ancestors being honored. Pile the rice on high so it looks like a mound is sticking out of the bowl.
There are several traditional foods, I have copied their description from wikipedia;
One of the major foods prepared and eaten during the Chuseok holiday is songpyeon (송편),a Korean traditional rice cake which contains stuffing made with healthy ingredients such as sesame seeds, black beans, mung beans, cinnamon, pine nut, walnut, chestnut, jujube, and honey. When making songpyeon, steaming them over a layer of pine-needles is critical. The word “song”(송) in songpyeon means a pine tree in Korean. The pine needles not only contribute to songpyeon’s aromatic fragrance, but also its beauty and taste Songpyeon is also significant because of the meaning contained in its shape. Songpyeon’s rice skin itself resembles the shape of a full moon, but once it wraps the stuffing, its shape resembles the half-moon. Since the Three Kingdoms era in Korean history, there was a Korean legend saying that these two shapes ruled the destinies of the two greatest rival kingdoms, Baekje and Silla. During the era of King Uija of Baekje, an encrypted phrase, “Baekje is full-moon and Silla is half moon”, was found on a turtle’s back and it predicted the fall of the Baekje and the rise of the Silla. The prophecy came true when Silla defeated Baekje in their war. Ever since, Koreans started to refer to a half-moon shape as the indicator of the bright future or victory. Therefore, during Chuseok, families gather together and eat half-moon shaped Songpyeon under the full-moon, wishing themselves a brighter future.
Another popular Korean traditional food that people eat during Chuseok is Hangwa. It is an artistic food decorated with natural colors and textured with patterns. Hangwa is made with highly nutritious ingredients, such as rice flour, honey, fruit, and roots. People use edible natural ingredients to express various colors, flavors, and tastes. Because of its decoration and nutrition, Koreans eat Hangwa not only during Chuseok, but also for special events, for instance, weddings, birthday parties, and marriages. The most famous types of Hangwa are Yakgwa, Yugwa, and Dasik. Yakgwa is a medicinal cookie which is made of fried rice flour dough ball and Yugwa is a fried cookie that also refers as a “flower of Hangwa”. Dasik is a tea cake that people enjoy with tea.
Back to ritual set up:
Note the small table in front of the first here you place the drinks (Soju, boiled rice water, water), an incense bowl filled with sand and a bowl of sand. The burning incense represents heaven and the bowl of sand earth. You need to call upon both to recall the ancestors, as their spirits float in heaven while their bodies are buried in earth. There should be two candles placed on the main table. Now you are ready for the ritual.
The ceremony is usually run by the eldest male in a family, but this is changing I found a wonderful blog by an American woman married to a Korean man here is her Chuseok blog:
The Soul of Seoul, Chuseok
The ritual is held first thing in the morning. The family bathes and men wear suits, women a conservative dress or traditional hanbok. The table is set, open the door and welcome the spirits. The eldest male lights the incense. Then he bows head to floor 2 times then kneels. Everyone else bows head to floor 2 times then one bow from the waist. Soju is poured in a cup held by second oldest, then poured out in the sand this is done in an order of three; some places say 3 cups, some say pour in 3 sections. This is to symbolize the ancestors descent to the offering table. The next cup is poured then circled in the smoke 3 times then placed for spirits to drink. Each of the male family members makes a wine offering. Chopsticks are tapped on the table 3 times then placed on a dish, a spoon is placed in the rice, the concave part faces east, repeat for each spirit. Once the table is set everyone leaves for a few minutes for the spirits to eat in peace, then you return. When multiple generations are being honored the process can be repeated for each generation. Bow three times again replace soup bowl with water bowl, place 3 spoons of rice in water, cover dishes and discard wine. Bow 2 times and say goodbye, then the jibang (paper with name) is burned in the incense bowl. Clear the food to a table in another room to be enjoyed by everyone.
Here is a blog that goes into great detail on the Korean Jesa, a ritual to honor the deceased.
Ask A Korean, How to Hold Jesa
Different forms of this ancestor honor ritual are held 3 times a year; Chuseok, Lunar New Year, and an individual ceremony at midnight on the death day of the person.
I hope you found the information on this ritual as interesting as I did, if you are interested in trying your own ritual I highly suggest reading the Ask A Korean blog he goes into great detail.