Happy holidays! This year is already coming to a close, and that means it’s time for fun, family, and reflection as we head into the tail end of the holiday season. In just a couple of weeks, billions of people across the world will be celebrating the most widely celebrated holiday in the world, Christmas – and Korea is no different!
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 biggest similarity is that Christmas is a national holiday in Korea, which means that most employees have the day off of work to spend with family and friends. What’s not to love about that?
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 for people that would like to celebrate the religious aspect of the holiday.
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 – while most Koreans have the day off, it’s less of a big production than it is in many Western countries. It’s definitely not the biggest holiday of the year, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an excuse to take the day off and relax!
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. It’s an excuse to stay home with your partner and have a small intimate celebration that brings you closer together. Doesn’t that sound warm and fuzzy?
Read on for some more information on what Christmas time means in Korea – there are more intriguing differences than you think!
Christmas Food in Korea
If you ask most people, the best part about Christmas is the food you choose to indulge in on Christmas day. Things like traditional Christmas food (turkey, stuffing, eggnog etc.) that are not naturally found in Korean cuisine are quite difficult to find at Christmas – you won’t see eggnog at corner markets like you will in some Western countries at this time of year!
Apart from missing their family, food is probably the main thing about Christmas that foreigners living in the country miss. For many people, it doesn’t feel like Christmas without the traditional Christmas meal they’ve become accustomed to. 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. You’re not alone in your search for a traditional Western Christmas meal, and you may be surprised at what you find!
If you are looking for food to eat at home, then it may be possible to get a small turkey from Costco (yes, they have Costco in Korea!). Keep in mind you may need to book in advance, as they have been known to sell out for holidays. 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. There’s so much about Korean winter food to enjoy, that it’s not hard to do!
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 to their house and inside their home. If you’re used to seeing Christmas lights left and right through the month of December, you’re in for a different Christmas experience this year in Korea!
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.
There’s nothing quite like shopping in December and being surrounded by holiday decorations building up the anticipation for Christmas, so it’s no wonder that Korean shop owners see the value in decorating. Also, rather than carols, the latest Christmas pop songs will be blaring out onto the streets.
If you’re typically a fan of Christmas music, you’re in for a treat – rather than traditional Christmas music like “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” you’ll be hearing special Christmas songs that k-pop groups come out with around this time of year. The motif of these songs will focus more on the love aspect of the holiday and less on Christmas itself, but the songs are still a fun way to get in the holiday spirit (and really, who doesn’t love an excuse to listen to k-pop?).
Things to Do in Korea for Christmas in Korea
Christmas in Korea isn’t a family holiday. As such, the giving of Christmas presents isn’t a common thing – very few people give gifts to a large number of people, and even fewer people participate in White Elephant or Secret Santa traditions that involve mass gift-giving. 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. If you don’t feel like waiting on line in the cold, another popular option is to stay snuggled up at home by the fire with your significant other – it doesn’t get much more romantic than that!
For those with young Children, there are also several temporary sledding slopes around the city. If you’re in Korea this winter with your family, be sure to take the children sledding — the slopes get pretty big in many places in Korea, so sledding is fun and a little intense! Korea is a mountainous country and has a large number of ski resorts, too, if you’re interested in skiing or snowboarding while you’re here.
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 that they’ve become used to over time.
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.
If you’d like to get in the Christmas spirit and are having a little bit of a hard time doing so, consider being super festive and setting up a caroling party with your friends on Christmas Eve. Caroling is common throughout the holiday season in Korea, and if you’re far from home and missing the traditions you’re used to there’s nothing quite like spreading Christmas cheer through song. Carolers typically go door to door in residential neighborhoods and sign to families to get them in the holiday spirit, and a good singing voice is not required!
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 that you can watch beside your fire.
If you’re shopping for your significant other this Christmas, you may be surprised at how early holiday shopping specials begin to pop up – large department stores start featuring holiday discounts as early as mid-November to encourage the early birds to start shopping. At some department stores, you’re even entered into contests while shopping – each purchase you make could make you eligible to win a variety of prizes.
That way, you can shop for the people you love AND get something for yourself in return. Winning! These deals are also frequently available on websites if online shopping is more your style or if you’re trying to avoid the cold this year.
If you want to spread the love to your friends and family this Christmas in Korea, a great way to do that is by sending Christmas cards – Christmas cards are easy to find in Korea, and they’re also typically less expensive than the cards you’ll find places like the United States. Most Korean Christmas cards are nature oriented and focus on snow, trees, or some other type of peaceful artwork that appeals to a wide audience. Pick up some Korean Christmas cards this winter and show your loved ones how you feel without breaking the bank – they’ll be happy to know that you’re thinking of them! Who knows, maybe you’ll get some in return as well.
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, eggnog, or some roasted chestnuts to keep you warm this winter.
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 so that you don’t miss out. These fairs are usually home to amazing food and fun activities, and they are a great time for the whole family.
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! Also be sure to remember that although the traditions that are celebrated this time of year in Korea may be different from the ones you’re used to, the emotion and the reason behind these traditions are familiar.
Christmas is about celebration and warmth, and spending time with the people you care about. It’s about reflection and appreciation, and sitting by a crackling fire. You’ll find those sentiments anywhere, including all over Korea!
What do you plan on doing this Christmas? Be sure to let us know in the comments below – ‘tis the season, and we’re always open to new or interesting ideas!