Christmas is a relatively new and subdued holiday in East Asia, but there are several Korean Christmas traditions that have grown from Western Christian influences and are now popular during this winter celebration.
Korea is a peninsula in East Asia that borders both Russia and China, and its history goes back more than 4,000 years. Modern Korea is comprised of two sovereign nations, North Korea and South Korea, and there can be much tension between the governments of the two nations. The culture of the region spans both countries, however, and the population of more than 70 million citizens has a rich history that is continually changing as new traditions and influences are introduced.
The dominant religions in Korea are Buddhism and Confucianism, though Islam is also present. Approximately 25 percent of the country practices Christianity, and those individuals celebrate most of the Korean Christmas traditions.
Christmas in Korea
Because Christianity and Western culture are both fairly new in Korea, most of the Christmas celebrations are very similar to those found in Europe and the United States. Popular Christmas traditions include:
- Exchanging Christmas cards: Korean Christmas cards are generally less expensive than cards in the United States, and they often have peaceful outdoor scenes, Korean landscapes, or other artwork on them. Most cards will use the phrase "Season's Greetings" instead of "Merry Christmas" in order to appeal to a wider segment of the population.
- Church services and pageants: Christian churches in Korea hold traditional evening services on Christmas Eve as well as mass on Christmas Day, which often includes a baptismal service.
- Christmas movies: Holiday cartoons and Christmas movies are popular seasonal entertainment in Korea, especially for children and families.
- Exchanging gifts: Young children eagerly await the arrival of Santa Haraboji, or Santa Grandfather, on Christmas Eve. Friends and family members may also exchange gifts for Christmas in Korea.
- Decorated trees: Not every family in Korea will have a Christmas tree, but those that do will often decorate it with lights and ornaments similar to those found in the United States.
- Christmas dinner: A formal dinner is a popular way to celebrate the holiday with family members, though the menu usually includes popular Korean dishes such as sweet potato noodles, rice cake soup, barbecued beef (bulgogi), and spicy pickled cabbage (gimchi).
- Public decorations: Because Christmas is a public holiday in South Korea, many businesses such as department stores and other retailers will decorate lavishly to attract customers with seasonal cheer.
- Caroling: Youth groups frequently organize caroling parties for Christmas in Korea. Starting from the church, they will visit the homes of older church members singing Christmas carols. It is traditional to invite carolers in for hot drinks and treats.
What Korean Christmas Celebrations Don't Have
Korean Christmas traditions are less elaborate than most holiday celebrations in the West. Non-Christians may enjoy family gatherings and gift exchanges, but in general the holiday is much more subdued and it is not one of the largest holidays on the Korean calendar. In fact, for many families New Year's Day is a more important holiday and is spent celebrating with large gatherings, while Christmas celebrations are more popular with teens and children. Korean Christmas celebrations also do not have multiple gifts. Because the holiday is not as popular or widespread in Korea, it is more traditional to give a relative or close friend one thoughtful gift rather than several presents. Because of the Western influence that has brought Christmas to Korea, the celebrations also usually lack specific ceremonies to honor one's ancestors, which are normally a significant part of major Korean holidays.
Celebrating Korean Christmas Traditions
Celebrating Christmas with Korean cultural awareness can introduce new meaning to the holiday. Many families who want to celebrate their Korean heritage or share unique cultures choose to incorporate Korean traditions into their holiday festivities. Easy ways to honor Korean traditions include:
- Organizing a caroling party on Christmas Eve.
- Limiting the number of gifts to focus on the meaning behind them rather than their materialism.
- Adding Korean foods to the Christmas dinner menu.
- Learning how to say Merry Christmas in Korean - sun tan chuk ha.
- Attending Christmas religious services.
Korean Christmas traditions are very similar to traditions found in Europe and the United States, but they also include Asian modesty and cultural awareness. By celebrating Christmas customs from around the world, it is possible to enjoy Christmas in many ways while learning about the spirit of the season that unites everyone during this holiday.