The Holiday That Wasn’t – Christmas in South Korea

By Marcello Kolax

If you greet the special season with a rumpled face, then South Korea might be right place for you. Christmas in South Korea is often celebrated as a day for young couples, not family, and wine bars or romantic restaurants are booked out well in advance.

But if you are on your own, why not join the crowds flocking to the bars. Since Christmas is a relatively new event, it is open to interpretation. Korea’s first president Rhee Syng-man, a Methodist, introduced Christmas as a national holiday in 1945. Since then, many ideas of how Christmas should be celebrated have evolved.

Lights of the season: This year's Busan Christmas Tree Festival will be held from December 1, 2011 to January 9, 2012. (Picture by Min Hye Kim)

Myeong-hwan Kim, 25, says, “My parents think Christmas is just the birthday of Jesus. Their generation doesn’t view Christmas as a special day. I am looking forward to a great evening with my girlfriend.” Another unique feature of Korean Christmas is that people eat cake on December 25. The “birth of Jesus” is taken quite literally. On some occasions, people even sing birthday songs dedicated to the baby Jesus.

Minjung Son, 32, is Protestant and member of Yoido Gospel Church, Korea’s biggest church with approximately one million members. She says, “My family has dinner together after attending prayer. I have a piece of cake as I would for a birthday.”

“The Christmas cake became so popular that any business that has anything to do with baking or sweets selling has its own line of Christmas cakes. Every year they compete to outdo the competition in cake decorations and promotions,” says a spokesperson at the Korea Tourism Organisation.

Lights of the season: This year's Busan Christmas Tree Festival will be held from December 1, 2011 to January 9, 2012. (Picture by Min Hye Kim).

Around one-third of the South Korean population is Christian, which makes it East Asia’s biggest Christian nation. Yet, many are even unaware that Christmas is a public holiday and see it as a regular working day.

Dr. Michael Shin, Professor at the University of Cambridge, says, “Missionaries tried heavily to penetrate China and Japan in the 20th century but it was Korea where they were most successful. In contrast to China, Christianity was not automatically associated with imperialism in Korea.“ People agreed to the teaching of equality and freedom and many who pushed for reforms were Korean Christians.

Brian Deutsch, an English teacher in South Korea up until 2010, thinks Christmas is a very welcome development and says, “The biggest reason why Koreans have adopted so many holidays, and created so many consumer ones, is to inject some fun into the calendar: the two biggest Korean holidays consist almost entirely of being stuck in traffic, days of cooking and being mindful of dead relatives. A holiday like Christmas was brought in without the attachments to tradition in order to give some levity to the winter.”

Simon and Martina Stawski, two bloggers and teachers in Bucheon, agree, “We don’t see lights and Christmas trees on houses everywhere, so it feels like just any old time of the year. Big corporate stores do get into Christmas spirit, but for more commercial than religious reasons. It’s more of a couple’s holiday, akin to Valentine’s Day, and not a family holiday. ”

Lights of the season: This year's Busan Christmas Tree Festival will be held from December 1, 2011 to January 9, 2012. (Picture by Min Hye Kim)

Christmas used to be a purely religious event in the 1970s and 80s which makes the commercialisation of Christmas a new phenomenon.

James H. Grayson, former missionary in South Korea and now Professor at the University of Sheffield, says, “During my time in Korea, Christmas used to be taken very seriously. I can imagine that Christian youth organisations wanted to make it more attractive for the young so they started to change.”

The spirit is spread almost exclusively by big stores, waiting for the next profit. Some of the elaborate Christmas lights do not change the face of South Korea as most streets are illuminated by advertising boards all year long.

Many complain about the rapid commercialisation and loss of true Christmas spirit. It seems as if Christmas has been reduced to a commercial event within a generation. Maybe, after all, the Korean Christmas is not as different as anywhere else. Happy buying.

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1 thought on “The Holiday That Wasn’t – Christmas in South Korea

  1. Hi, I enjoyed the article very much and it was good to see the photos. And yet, if I can make an observation here, I don’t think many koreans think Christmas as just another working day precisely because as you said, one third of the population is Christian and it has been a public holiday for decades. I hope that line in the story would not mislead others who are not familiar with the Korean culture. Thanks.

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