Christmas is my most treasured time of the year. The music. The lights. The tree. Advent. The birth of our Lord and Savior. Family. My family takes it all in. We savor it. I have shared a many of our Christmas traditions on the blog before. Last year, I wrote about our Christmas Around the World study that we do each year. This year, however, I wanted to focus on a specific Country.
As many of you know, I was blessed with the opportunity to visit my husband in South Korea while he is currently stationed there. I enjoyed our time immensely! The idea for featuring Christmas traditions in South Korea came about when I was at Lottemart (similar to our malls in the states). They were beginning to decorate for Christmas in early November. I was exuberant with what I saw and what I learned and just couldn’t wait to do a post!
There are two main religions in South Korea – Christianity and Buddhism. Christianity makes up only 25% of the people. Although more religions make up the population, these two make up the majority. I was not aware that so many Christians lived in this country. I also was not aware of how many Churches that I would see!
In a previous post, I mentioned attending a Baptist Church in Seoul with my husband. That was such a blessing! It was also a blessing getting out and being able to see some of the other churches.
Christmas in Korea is a bit different than it is in America. It is not considered a “major” holiday as it is in the states. The two biggest holidays in South Korea are Chuseok and Seollal. Chuseok is often referred to as the Korean Thanksgiving Day. Seollal is the New Year celebration based off the Lunar New Year (Chinese Calendar) and celebrations can last up to 15 days. However, with the rise of Christianity throughout the country, more Koreans are being exposed to western culture and Christmas is becoming more prevalent.
Although Christmas is considered a national holiday in South Korea, the majority of the population does not celebrate it as such. Schools close for Christmas Eve and return the day after Christmas. They later take a longer winter break just like in the states.
Many churches throughout the country have crosses reaching above other building that remain lit all year. While their decorations are not as elaborate as here in the states, small decorations can be found outside most churches and stores. The displays are festive and inviting! In Seoul, a huge display of lights can be seen throughout the city, including the Han River (the river that runs through North and South Korea).
Koreans do exchange gifts; however, it is much different than the way we exchange gifts. When we prepare for Christmas, it includes a lot of shopping and gift buying. For the Korean people money is a popular gift. I think secretly my brother is part Korean because that is his preferred gift, too! 🙂 As western culture continues to influence and gain popularity, more Koreans are purchasing gifts for friends and family.
Here are some of the popular traditions that South Koreans who celebrate Christmas partake in:
- Exchanging Gifts – Young Children eagerly await the arrival of “their” Santa Claus. They call him Santa Grandfather. However, most families exchange only one gift.
- Watching Christmas movies – They have been greatly influenced by western culture. The movies are popular movies we all know and love, but have Korean subtitles. Hey, I can’t blame them—I love Christmas movies myself. 🙂
- Decorating Christmas Trees – Because of the influence western culture, many homes will have a Christmas tree. The ones who do put up a tree decorate it with lights and ornaments much like in the states.
- Christmas Dinner – Koreans have lavish Christmas dinners. This is a good time to get together with family and friends. Sounds a lot like America doesn’t it? However, they serve much different dishes! Some of their dishes include rice cake soup, sweet potato noodles, BBQ Beef (bulgogi – which my husband loves) and spicy pickled cabbage (kimchi).
- Church Services – Christian church services are often conducted on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day! I wish churches back here had Christmas Day services! How wonderful!!!
- Christmas Caroling – People of all ages enjoy participating in this. They usually begin at the church and head out to visit older members of the congregation.
- Exchanging Christmas Cards – Much are way simpler than American Christmas cards but nonetheless this is a growing tradition amongst the Koreans and they seem to really enjoy participating in.
There are lesser known differences between the Korean and American customs during Christmas. I had already mentioned that Santa Claus was referred to as Santa Grandfather. Instead of saying “Merry Christmas,” most Koreans say “Happy Christmas.” I managed to snap a few pictures of some decorations from Lottemart that showcase this! I thought it was beautiful and, honestly, I was just glad they were not politically correct and didn’t say “Happy Holidays!”
Learning more about cultures and how they celebrate helps us all to reach out to those of other ethnicity. While Koreans now are embracing many of the customs and traditions that the United States and England have, it is still good to be culturally respectful. For example, showing up for a Korean Christmas celebration with many gifts could be offensive. Korean celebrations include cultural awareness and Asian modesty standards.
Here is an article written by a journalist from the states who has lived in South Korea since 1990. He wrote about the changes in how South Koreans have began to celebrate the birth of our savior.
Take a listen to Christmas Carols sang in Korean!
Here are some random pictures taken in South Korea:
Hubby sent this to me. Santa sighting in Korea. 🙂
My friend Jennifer’s daughter and her friends. They are stationed in Korea too, just a different area then my hubby.
My hubby’s Christmas tree that he and I decorated when I was visiting.
My friend Jennifer’s Christmas tree.
This Santa was on top of the Fire Station at Yongsan, South Korea.
There is not much to say about Christmas in North Korea because it is virtually non-existent. It is not technically illegal to be a Christian in North Korea, but it is. I should say that being a Christian is “allowed” but at the risk of being killed or going to prison. There are folks who have went to prison just for owning a Bible and sharing God’s Word. So any worship including Christmas celebrations will have to be done in private. We all need to lift up the Christians in North Korea as they risk their lives daily for their faith.
I hope this taught you a little about Korean Christmas!