Christmas is a public holiday in South Korea.
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About 25 to 30 percent of South Koreans identify as Christians, which is the largest percentage among East Asian countries. Another 25 percent are Buddhist or Confucian, while over half are not religious at all. Nonetheless, Christmas is celebrated by many Christians and non-Christians alike in South Korea. This is in stark contrast to North Korea, where Christians are persecuted and Christmas is kept only in secret “underground” meetings. The situation of their fellow Koreans to the north is a constant reminder to South Koreans to be thankful for their freedom to celebrate Christmas.
Since Christianity and Christmas are relatively new in Korea, many of the traditions come from the West. There will be some Korean elements that are blended in as well, however. Some of the most important ways that South Koreans celebrate Christmas include:
- Bright, Colourful Decorations
Churches will have lights strung out on them and a red neon cross shining on top of the building. Malls and shops, filled with an abundance of shoppers during December, will be decked out with lights as well, as will bridges and outdoor areas all over the major cities. Finally, Christmas trees and decorations are commonly set up at home among Christians and visiting Westerners.
- Gift Exchanges
Gift-giving among friends and family is common, but simply giving money is the most popular gift by far. Santa Claus, also called “Santa Grandfather,” sneaks in on Christmas Eve to leave presents for young children, but he might as likely be wearing a blue suit as a red one.
- Christmas Food
Christmas dinner with family members is common and usually very formal. Korean dishes like kimchi (hot and spicy cabbage soup), bulgogi (barbecued beef), rice-cake soup, and sweet-potato noodles are common. A sponge cake doused in cream is popular for dessert.
- Christmas Greetings
Korean Christmas cards will typically have a background of beautiful Korean landscapes or artwork. Many of them opt for “Season’s Greetings!” so non-Christians feel better about using them, but others will bear the words “Meri Krismas!” or a religious or Biblical message.
- Church Services
Many will arrive at Church for services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, including even non-Christians. There will frequently be Christmas pageants put on, but many of these services also include baptisms of converts. At some churches, you might even find a midnight, candlelight service.
Should you be in South Korea during the Christmas season, specifically in the capital city of Seoul, here are a few activities you may wish to take part in:
- Visit Seoul’s Sinchon Christmas Market. From December 21st through the 29th, this whole section of town is decked out with Christmas trees, lights displays, and street art. Carolers wander the streets, and there are free concerts to attend. Also look for antiques at the flea market, a festive tug-o-war, and authentic Korean restaurants in the same area.
- Stop by the Korean Children’s Center to go sledding in their outdoor game area. You can rent sleds nearby, and let the kids have fun sliding over the snow. There will also be many traditional folk games, along with ice fishing for smelt over a frozen pond.
- Go ice skating on various frozen lakes and indoor skating rinks. One of the best indoor skate zones is at the Grand Hyatt Seoul, which is open all year round. For outdoor skating, try Seoul Plaza, where you will also see a gigantic Christmas tree and get an incredible view of the city.
South Korea is one of the few Asian countries with a large Christian population that celebrates Christmas with great fervour, and the rest of the population often joins in, at least, on a secular level. You will notice many similarities to Western Christmases in Korea, but you the inevitable differences that arise when a holiday is introduced in a new land will also catch your attention.