Christmas might have started as a religious celebration, but it's a global phenomenon now. If you're traveling around the world this winter, be sure to take a pit stop and enjoy the Christmas celebrations that South Korea has to offer. From incredible decorations to delicious dishes, get in on the action with these Korean Christmas traditions that have a delightfully Korean twist.
How Religion Factors Into Korean Christmas Celebrations
Almost half of the Korea population has no religious affiliation. In fact, just 3 in 10 have any ties to Christianity, with the majority of them connected to some Protestant denomination. Because only about 30% of Koreans are Christian, going to a Christmas Eve church service isn't all that common. In fact, Jesus may have as little of a place in their homes as in the increasingly non-religious homes in America. However, for Koreans who are religious, family members are expected to attend both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services or masses.
Typical Korean Christmas Traditions
Christmas is a public holiday in South Korean, and they celebrate on December 25th just like everywhere else. Because work is suspended on national holidays, most people have the day off. Walking down the street, you should hear revelers giving each other a Korean greeting of Sung Tang Chuk Ha, or Merry Christmas.
Christmas for Koreans, wherever they're celebrating, is often centered around family and their festivities, echoing many long-standing Western traditions. But unlike in the U.S., Christmas can also be the perfect night to go out on the town with a romantic partner or friends.
Korean Christmas cards are an important way to keep in contact with family and friends for both native South Koreans, immigrants, and visitors. Writing during the holiday season to family in Korea helps Korean Americans stay in touch and feel part of their family's celebration. However, more general holiday greetings might be used in lieu of Merry Christmas. Although sticking with secular greetings is an increasingly common trend, and not something specific to South Korea.
Christmas movies, most of which are Westernized, are rather popular in Korea. Whether you're a diehard subbed fan or are happy to settle for dubbed ones, there are many out there to enjoy. Get a taste of Korean Christmas films with these two examples:
- My Friend Bernard: Based on a popular children's cartoon, the movie Mug Travel (or My Friend Bernard, as it's called in English) follows the tale of a small child on Christmas Eve and her adventures with animal friends.
- Merry Christmas Mr. Mo: Merry Christmas Mr. Mo follows a terminally ill man who wants to give gifts at Christmas to family and friends.
Unsurprisingly, gift giving isn't as rampant in Korea as it is in the United States, where Christmas, commercialism, and capitalism go hand-in-hand. In fact, in most families, each person only gets one gift, if any. Often it's given after an entertaining musical performance or poetry recital.
When exchanging gifts, it's customary to give and receive something with both hands as a polite sign of respect. Some of the popular gifts Koreans wrap up are brand name items, liquor (unless it's against someone's religion), and items to meet your end-of-the-year needs. But if you're a kid, you're in luck! It's common for Koreans to give children cash towards the end of the year.
Decorated Trees and Homes
Even families who aren't religious love a Christmas tree, though it's most likely artificial. You can expect all your usual Western decor subjects to make an appearance, such as twinkling lights and ornaments. But many people add culturally special items like silk slippers or traditional drums. However, because many people live in multi-family apartments and condo units, you won't see as many outdoor home decorations as in the U.S.
Metropolitan areas like Seoul in South Korea just do Christmas decorations better. They've got breathtaking displays of technologically mind-blowing Christmas scenes. There are so many Christmas lights that it looks like a glorified Santa's workshop. But South Korea is usually on the forefront of tech and the arts, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that they'd knock Christmas decor out of the park.
@clarissaacindy merry christmas from seoul #seoulkorea#christmas#minivlog Snowman - Sia
Korean Christmas Songs
Koreans can be very sentimental and romantic, especially the younger set. Naturally, you can't make it through a Christmas season in Korea without listening to the latest seasonal tracks from your favorite K-pop groups. Much of Korea's Christmas music focuses on reminding people how much they're loved or missed during this special season.
While you can hear your standard Western favorites, some popular Korean Christmas hits to listen to are:
Family plays such a big role in most Korean traditions. As such, a large potluck dinner is usually on the menu for the Christmas holidays. The holiday menu features foods like Bulgogi (barbecued beef), sweet potato noodles, and kimchi, and everyone brings their best dish. You'll typically finish off the meal with a Christmas cake (often a steamed rice cake decorated with fruits) or a buffet of all the best Korean sweets the family has to offer.
Just a few of the sweets seen might include:
- Sugar candy that's homemade or purchased
- Steamed pear called baesuk
- Walnuts wrapped in persimmons
- Christmas-themed cakes with sweet red bean paste
Santa Claus and his reindeer have made their way across the world. Unlike the western Santa Claus with his red coat and fluffy white beard, the Korean Santa may be decked out in blue or even green and called Santa Kullusu or Santa Haraboji. You'll find him depicted with traditional robes and a "gat", the historic flat-topped hat worn by men during the Joseun Dynasty. However, to keep things easy, department store Santas opt for the ol' red and white suit and beard combo.
Santa Claus is a newer feature in South Korea's Christmas celebrations. Over time, he's gradually been introduced as both a marketing tool and a way to entertain children. Today, you might see Santa giving gifts at public or civic events, but rarely will you find people dressing up like Santa to put gifts under the tree.
Where the East and West Collide
Western traditions have slowly made their way into the Korean winter season. Western media is just one of the many factors to blame for spreading Christmas far and wide. Now, this blending of Western traditions with ancient Buddhist, Confucianist, and Shamanist beliefs has created the uniquely Korean Christmas that people celebrate today.