A Christmas Carol from South Korea: What does Christmas look like in Asia?
Foreign Correspondent in South Korea, Milana Nikolova, explains how Christmas is celebrated in her host country and why it is a change from a typical European Christmas.
Christmas is undeniably one of the biggest annual celebrations around the globe. The 2.3 billion Christians present in almost every corner in the world, have rich and varying traditions dedicated to observing the holiday. As consumerism and western cultural influence has grown worldwide, Christmas has also spread to many non-Christian societies which have, in turn, created unique secular celebrations centred around the holiday. What makes Christmas in South Korea particularly interesting, is that, while nowadays Christianity is the most dominant religion amongst Koreans, Christmas and Christianity are also considerably new to the country. As a result, most of the traditions associated with the holiday are quite new and noticeably different to those found around Europe.
In 1945, Christians made up less than 5 percent of the South Korean population. Currently, Christianity is, without a doubt, the most widely practised religion in the country – with nearly 30 percent of Koreans identifying themselves as Christian in the most recent national census from 2015. This makes Christianity, a noticeable amount more popular than the second most widespread religion – Buddhism, with which only 15.5 percent of Koreans identify. These statistics are quite surprising considering that Buddhism is speculated to have been present in Korean society as early as the year 372.
Christmas and Christianity are also considerably new to the country. As a result, most of the traditions associated with the holiday are quite new and noticeably different to those found around Europe.
The fact that South Korea is one of the very few East Asian countries to have a substantial Christian population and to observe Christmas as a public holiday, is definitely a part of what makes spending the weeks leading up to Christmas in this country such a distinctive experience. What makes Korea even more of an outlier in this regard is that, unlikely many other Christians in Asia, Christianity was not adopted as a result of European colonisation. Due to this, the Christmas traditions here are completely different to those practised in Europe.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Christmas in South Korea and many other parts of the world, is that while elsewhere it is usually linked to families getting together, eating together and giving each other presents, this is rarely the case when it comes to Koreans. Dahye, a 23-year-old Christian convert, tells me about how some of her friends and she usually celebrate the holiday: “I’m the only Christian in my family, so I cannot say that Christmas is a family holiday for me. Sometimes I joke with my mother that she should buy me a present for Christmas, but she never does because this is not a tradition for us. Last year she took me to a nice restaurant and bought me expensive food. My church friends usually go to a service on Christmas, but I don’t think it’s very different to going on any other day. Many Christians here go to church every single Sunday.”
I also spoke to Lima, who relocated to Seoul from Central Asia, about the differences between Christmas celebrations in Korea and her home-country, and she shared similar observations: “Before coming here, I would celebrate Christmas at home with my family. Because they are not here, I don’t really celebrate. Christmas in South Korea is not a family holiday.”
While it true that Christianity is the most common religion in South Korea, this does not mean that the majority of Koreans are Christian. In fact, according to the same 2015 national census, this title goes to the non-religious, who make up just over 56 percent of the population. But it must be noted that Christians are not the only ones who are excited about the up-coming holiday either. Many of the unique celebrations that have developed in the country over the past few decades are rather secular.
Christmas here can sometimes feel more like Valentine’s Day than the winter family holiday we know.
I asked Park Jin Gyong, a university student who does not identify with any religion, about her Christmas plans: “This Christmas I’m going to Shanghai for a week, I can’t wait to Disneyland and see the Disneytown Christmas Experience! Yes, most Korean Christians go to church on Christmas and have a special mass, but for most people Christmas is not related to Christianity, so they celebrate in various fun ways. For example, young people like going to places decorated with Christmas lights with friend or lovers and enjoying the Christmas mood. “Free Hug Events”, at which people hug passing by strangers, are also very popular around Christmas.”
Jin Gyong touches on one other rather big difference between Christmas in South Korea and elsewhere, and that is that Christmas here can sometimes feel more like Valentine’s Day than the winter family holiday we know. I spoke to Ginger, a Korean-American who was raised in the US but decided to start her adult life in Seoul: “I’m not celebrating Christmas this year, because I don’t have a boyfriend!” she laughs. She tells me more about her impressions of the holiday: “When I used to live in the US Christmas was such a big deal! So it is here, but definitely not in the same way. Here the Christians go to church, and for everyone else it’s basically another Valentine’s Day.” Being in Seoul around this time of year, it is not hard notice this aspect of Korean Christmas. The prices of posh restaurants and fancy hotels are at an all-time high on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, a consequence of the massive number of young couples looking for a romantic way to spend the holiday. This aspect of Korean Christmas could be quite shocking to someone used to the holidays being a peaceful, family time.
For the short-term visitor, Christmas in South Korea might not look that different to Christmas anywhere else on Earth: Christmas trees, santas and pretty lights everywhere! However, for those of us who have had the amazing opportunity to get to know the Korean culture and people more in-depth, a completely different picture is revealed. The Christmas spirit in South Korea during the weeks leading up to the holidays, is certainly unlike that I have experienced anywhere else. This uniqueness is precisely what makes visiting the country at this time of year so interesting. Particularly if you’re in the company of a significant other, I would recommend trying out Christmas in Korea – where you would experience a unique atmosphere of Valentine’s Day style-romance and festive vibes.