Christmas in Korea is very different from Christmas in North America or Europe. There are some superficial similarities, such as Christmas decorations in shop windows, but look beyond that and the differences become very apparent.
The good news is that Christmas is a national holiday in Korea. That means that if you work in an office, school, or factory that isn’t owned by the local scrooge, then you are likely to have the day off.
Unlike many Asian countries, a large proportion of Koreans are Christian, which explains why the day is a national holiday. It also means that there are special Christmas services in churches around the country.
However, Christmas isn’t one of Korea’s big traditional holidays like Seollal or Chuseok, so there isn’t a mad rush of everybody trying to make it back to his or her hometown for Christmas.
Instead, rather than being a family holiday like Seollal or Chuseok, Christmas in Korea is more of a couple orientated holiday. In that way, it is similar to Valentines’ Day.
Christmas Food in Korea
Things like traditional Christmas food (turkey, stuffing, eggnog etc.) that are not naturally found in Korean cuisine are quite difficult to find at Christmas.
Apart from missing their family, food is probably the main thing about Christmas that foreigners living in the country miss. If you are really craving such foods, then your best bet is to find a bar/restaurant (usually in Itaewon) that has a special Christmas lunch available. Alternatively, try visiting the website of your home country’s embassy, chamber of commerce, expat’s club etc. and see if they have any special Christmas events arranged.
If you are looking for food to eat at home, then it may be possible to get a small turkey from Costco. Keep in mind you may need to book in advance. Smaller items are often available in the food sections of large department stores like Shinsegae (the more expensive the department store, the more likely they are to stock Christmassy foods).
Although Korea doesn’t have the same Christmas foods as other countries, it does have its own special winter foods. Therefore, rather than trying to recreate your homeland’s Christmas experience, try enjoying the differences that come from living in a different country!
Christmas Decorations in Korea
As well as the differences in cuisine, there is a big difference in the preparations for Christmas made by the average person.
Even though tinsel, Christmas lights, and plastic Christmas trees are cheap available, in Korea (find your local Daiso if you want to buy any of these things), it is not that common for people to decorate their own house during Christmas.
However, shops and cafés are often decorated. Shopping districts like Myeongdong, Dongdaemun, and Gangnam are full of Christmas lights and decorations. Shopping malls in these areas often have large Christmas trees covered with shiny decorations. Like the rest of the lights in these districts, the Christmas decorations look ultra-modern. Also, rather than carols, the latest Christmas pop songs will be blaring out onto the streets.
Things to Do in Korea
Christmas in Korea isn’t a family holiday. As such, the giving of Christmas presents isn’t a common thing. Rather than spend Christmas with their families, for many young Koreans, Christmas is more of a romantic holiday. As a result, couple-orientated activities are very popular. There are dozens of outdoor ice skating rinks around at this time of year. They get very busy indeed, with queues for the ice rink at City Hall being several hours long at times.
For those with young Children, there are also several temporary sledding slopes around the city. Korea is a mountainous country and has a large number of ski resorts, too.
For anybody wanting to guarantee a white Christmas, these could be the places to go. Keep in mind they will no doubt be very busy so make sure you book in advance. There are several resorts that are close enough to Seoul for people to go there for a day-trip. Many resorts also have ski runs that are open during the night.
Being a public holiday, there are certain places that get very crowded on Christmas day. Places that feel more ‘Christmassy’ tend to be absolutely packed with people who are trying to find that elusive Christmas spirit.
Lotteworld amusement park, with its special Christmas themed events, is one such place. Myeongdong is also very busy as it is seen as a place to have a date on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. As Christmas is a ‘Western’ holiday, many of the more international parts of Seoul, such as Itaewon, are also especially busy at Christmas.
Although people in Korea don’t usually give presents to their friends and family, they do give presents to their significant other. Like much of the world, Christmas is a heavily commercialized holiday and there are plenty of Christmas sales and Christmas-themed advertisements at this time of the year. If you don’t have a date for Christmas, or if you want to avoid the cold and the crowds, there are plenty of Christmas-themed programs and Christmas movies on television over the Christmas period.
There are some Christmas markets around Korea, although they are a lot smaller than those in Europe. The pedestrian area of Shinchon, in front of Yonsei University, often has a small Christmas fair where it may be possible to find some mince pies or eggnog.
There is also often some kind of fair in the Seongbuk area of Seoul (home to many foreign embassies) during December. The exact dates and locations of such events change from year to year but there is usually something special on so keep your eyes peeled.
Christmas in Korea is different from Christmas anywhere else in the world so rather than trying to recreate the Christmas of your homeland, embrace the differences and enjoy a unique Korean Christmas!Find this helpful? Share with your friends. They'll thank you for it!