Happy December! December is a big time for holidays and celebrations world-wide and Korea joins in- though the celebration in Korea is a bit different. South Korea also celebrates Christmas but instead of the traditional focus on family the focus is more on romance!
Korea already had big family celebrations like Chuseok and the Lunar New Year when Christmas was introduced by the west so it didn’t take off as a family event. While Christmas has a big focus on family, and especially making it magical for children, Koreans made it into a romantic celebration instead. Interestingly though, it is a national holiday; so unlike other couple focused days everyone gets the day off from work and school!
History of Christmas in Korea
Christmas’ introduction to Korea is naturally tied to Christianity and actually seems to date back pretty far, with the first missionaries slowly introducing the holiday more to Koreans around the 1880’s. While Christians make up a low amount of the population even today (around 23% as of 2021), the holiday has become more and more commercialized and people celebrate or join in without any religious affiliation.
Also I’m personally not religious, nor grew up religious or have much Christian knowledge (past choir as a child). So I’m not sure the comparison of how an American vs Korean Christian celebrates the holiday.
Korean Traditions for Christmas
In Seoul you can see Christmas everywhere! Many places get into decorating; such as Seoul city hall with their giant Christmas tree, Lotte world with Christmas parade, Namsan tower and the locks of love trees, and more. Shops also join in on it (especially anything romantic or couple related) to light up the city during winter. But not many individuals or houses decorate, so you’ll mostly just find the Christmas vibe out downtown or in city center areas as opposed to more residential areas.
Family and friends can still exchange gifts in Korea, though it’s a lot less common than in the west. For some the most they will give is an envelope with money in it, couples are more likely to give personal or sentimental gifts.
In terms of food, Korean Christmas is different. They don’t go for the usual turkey feast and the deserts are different too. For many people they get a Korean Christmas cake; which isn’t a fruit cake but more of a sponge cake with whipped cream and topped with fruit or cute holiday decorations.
What do Couples do on Christmas in Korea?
It’s common for couples to go all out for the holiday, booking fancy dinners well in advance. More people are likely to go out to an expensive multi-course meal or buffet than to have a home cooked Christmas meal at home like here.
In terms of activities some may take advantage of the day off and book a short trip as well, either a staycation or out to one of Koreas many ski resorts. But many go out either skating together, to a Christmas event, or to a Christmas fair or market filled with delicious street food. Amusement parks like Lotte word or Everland are big for holiday events, which both couples and families go to.
Quick Facts about Korean Christmas
Christmas was introduced to Korea before the split and before Japanese rule so what about North Korea? It seems the government wants to snuff out anything Christmas related at all. Christmas is forbidden, and actually Kim Jong un decided that Dec. 24 the nation would celebrate his grandmothers birthday (Kim Jong Suk, the first wife of Kim Il sung). Possibly to strongly discourage any other celebration around the time.
South Koreans have a joke about “크리스마스는 케빈과 함께” (Christmas with Kevin) for singles to say. That’s because the movie Home Alone (with the lead character named Kevin) plays constantly on TV around Christmas. So instead of being out on a date, you’ll be at home watching repeats of Home Alone. Similarly there’s “크리스마스는 해리포터와 함께” (Christmas with Harry Potter).