About 50% of the S. Korean population identifies as Christian. However, they haven’t always been Christian. They have always believed in God because their first emperor was the son of a man who went to Korea from the Tower of Babel. However, they didn’t know the Christian story. They didn’t know about the Bible, and they didn’t know about Jesus, so Christmas was just not part of their tradition until Christianity came to S. Korea. This has effected how they celebrate Christmas
Most Koreans don’t have a Christmas tree in their homes, although some do. If you are going to see Christmas decorations, they will be in the stores and places of business. S. Korea runs on the Free Enterprise System. Since the Korean war, they have worked hard and gone from the poorest country in the world to one of the richest countries in the world, and the businessmen know how to attract business. Christmas is good for business, so the businessmen celebrate it commercially, so there will be Christmas decorations will be all over the stores.
Koreans also love kids more than any country I have seen. They are really good about spoiling their kids. From what I have learned from listening, there is a philosophy in the Far East that began in Tibet that says up until about 8 years old, you basically let the kids get away with anything they want, and then you clamp down hard after that. I have seen the results of the philosophy first hand in both Korea and Japan, and it makes the little kids spoiled brats. I actually wondered how they grew up to be such good people until I heard about the philosophy because I thought they never made their kids be good. Parents are doting parents who spoil their kids, and it is the teachers who have to put the kids in line. However, I have seen some fathers that are extreme in knowing how to counsel their kids into going the right way in Korea. At 8 years old, they are big enough to talk to and reason with, and the fathers do just that.
In fact, I have been extremely impressed with S. Korean fathers. They must be the best fathers in the world! In America, it is the mother who changes diapers, feeds the baby, and carried the babies around, but in S. Korea, the mothers may be doing it, but the fathers are doing it just as much as the mothers. They are not running from those dirty diapers like American men do. The mothers have so much help and support with their babies in Korea it is amazing! S. Korean dads take their job seriously, and they also do at Christmas time.
I was tutoring some kids from church in English, and Christmas was approaching. I learned from the mother that they just weren’t going to bother with a Christmas tree, and as an American who has lived in Japan where they put up Christmas trees even though they aren’t Christians, I was surprised. In fact, it seemed this mother was doing nothing, not even buying gifts for her kids. I was very surprised. However, after Christmas, I learned the kids had a wonderful Christmas because of their dad. He went shopping and bought them lots of toys and candy hiding them in a big Santa sack. He got a Santa suit and dressed up as Santa and actually came on Christmas Eve and gave out all the gifts to the kids dressed as Santa. Those kids that I worried about because of their mother’s attitude about Christmas had one of the best Christmases kids could have!! It is the dads who worry about Christmas for the kids in Korea.
Another aspect of Christmas in Korea is the romantic aspect. In Korea, Christmas has become a kind of Valentine’s Day. Every young person thinks they must have a boyfriend or girlfriend to celebrate Christmas with. They all must have a date for Christmas. They love to play the romantic Christmas carols!!
While each family in America think they need a Christmas tree for Christmas, each family in Korea thinks they need a Christmas cake for Christmas. The bakeries are busy on Christmas. Korean women don’t bake and don’t know how to bake. 98% of the homes don’t have an oven in them, so they won’t be baking Christmas cookies like American women. However, the bakeries are full of beautiful Christmas cakes decorated with Christmas trees, Santas, etc. It is not just the bakeries that sell Christmas cakes. The people who make rice cakes also make Christmas cakes. Rice cakes are actually boiled. They take glutinous rice flour and mix it with water, shape it, and boil it to make what the Koreans call “doc.” Doc is not sweetened. Korea has not always had sugar, and doc was invented before sugar came to Korea. Usually, these doc are small rice cakes the size of a small cookie, but on Christmas, they make them as big as a regular cake and decorate them to look like the Christmas cakes in the bakery. They may not be sweet with sugar, but they may have nuts, dried peas, pieces of dried fruit, sweet bean paste, etc. in them.
Aside from these things, there is an extremely spiritual side to Christmas in S. Korea. On the day of Christmas in America, everyone stays home with their families. It is a big family party opening gifts, having Christmas dinner, etc. However, in Korea, the place you want to be at Christmas is at church. All the churches have special worship services on Christmas day, and all the Christians are at church on Christmas because they consider Christmas a very religious holiday. They have Christmas decorations at churches. They sing lots of Christmas carols on Christmas day. They give out rice cakes to their friends and others outside the church too. We lived across the street from a Catholic church for a while, and those Catholics were always giving little things out to people they passed as a celebration on holidays like Easter and Christmas.
We were used to celebrating Christmas the American way. We were used to staying at home and opening gifts and having a big Christmas dinner on Christmas. That is the tradition I was brought up with, but the Koreans just didn’t want to let it happen. They were all curious about what was going on at our house. They didn’t normally just drop in, but around Christmas time, our friends wanted to drop in on us. They brought us gifts of nice meat, rice cakes, etc. on Christmas. The church where we attended always had a Christmas party, and often they wanted to do it right on Christmas day at our house because they knew we had a Christmas tree. At first, we felt crashed in on, but we learned to do as my dad always said, “to roll with the punches.” We learned to enjoy them crashing in on us at Christmas.
I also taught a few Christmas traditions to my students at the university that they loved. I was famous for making cookies, and at Christmas, I made Christmas cookies and gave them out at church and at school. We had an English/Chinese Café at the university, not a place where there was food, but more of a student center where students hung out between classes either visiting with friends or studying. I took Christmas decorations and a small tree and put them in the English/Chinese Café. I baked Christmas cookies and had Christmas parties for the students in the English/Chinese café. I taught the book “the Christmas Carol” in one of my conversation classes because there are a lot of topics in that book that are worth talking about, and the topics inspired the students to speak. I taught them Christmas carols as part of the conversation class, and I also had a Christmas party with them. I taught that class to go Christmas caroling, and they loved it! We went around to all the main offices at the university singing Christmas carols. In America, they often give popcorn, Christmas cookies, or something like that to Christmas carolers, but I knew these students wouldn’t get anything like that, so I brought Christmas cookies and oranges (in Korean, everyone gives out oranges), and I let the students give them away as we went caroling. When we did that, the people in the offices began gathering candy and giving it to the carolers, and the carolers loved it! The carolers all came with Santa hats and reindeer horn head bands. The students loved it.
We began a tradition at our house because of the Korean students. Since most of them had never had a tree in their house, they had never decorated a tree. At Christmas time, I would have a Christmas party and let a group of students come out and decorate my house and put up my Christmas tree and decorate it. They loved it! Of course, I served them Christmas cookies, hot chocolate, and Yujacha. Yujacha is a wonderful hot citrus tea they drink in the winter in Korea. The same students wanted to come year after year to decorate my tree, and the funny thing about it was there was one guy from Bangladesh among the Koreans who used to be Muslim, but had studied the Bible with me and become a Christian, and he decided he was king of decorating. He became the organizer and became the boss of my Christmas decorations, and they all had a great time!!
The church I attended also did something wonderful at Christmas. We gathers on Christmas day and went shopping. We bought toys and wrapped them. We bought big bags of rice, big pieces of pork, and kimchee. One of the Korean ladies among us was a social worker. She knew where all the poorest people were who needed help. We went Christmas caroling to all the people on the list that she brought of people who were in need. If they had children, we left them with toys, candy, meat, rice, and kimchee. If they didn’t have children, they got candy, meat, rice, and kimchee. There weren’t many poor people in Korea, but they exist. We visited on woman who lived in an old drafty room at the back of a building with not furniture at all, and she was so sick she just laid in bed smiling when we gave her gifts and sang to her. We visited a family where the father had been out of work, but they had two little boys. The little boys were extremely happy!
You see, Korea hasn’t had the time to develop all the Christmas traditions that places like America and England have, but they are celebrating Christmas in their own way. Christianity brought Christmas to S. Korea, and they have totally embraced and love Christianity. They want to celebrate Christmas, and they are coming up with some of their own traditions.