In the sixteen plus years that I have lived and worked in Korea I have been witness to many changes both culturally and historically but none perhaps more noticeable—especially at this time of the year—than how the celebration of Christmas has evolved.
Just the other week I was running some errands downtown near Daejeon Station and I was surprised to see so many Christmas decorations being put up and many stores advertising Christmas specials, sales, and discounts. Almost every shop that I passed had a Christmas tree inside and if not, the shop was adorned with brightly colored decorations.
For myself it was nice to see so many people getting in the spirit of the holiday even though most of this so-called spirit smacks of the same commercialism, which has soured the true meaning of the holiday. Nonetheless, seeing all these Christmas decorations and hearing some Christmas songs being played put me in the mood, made me feel a little nostalgic and homesick and reminded me of when I first came to Korea.
When I first flew into Seoul’s Kimpo Airport, it was just two weeks before Christmas in 1990. My recruiter for the language school I was going to be teaching at told me that I probably wouldn’t feel too homesick arriving in Korea just a few weeks before the holidays and she was right. I was so excited to be here that I didn’t have much time to feel homesick.
Back then the celebration of Christmas in Korea was pretty low-key. To be sure other than a few Christmas trees and decorations here and there and the occasional Christmas song being played, one probably wouldn’t think it wasn’t the holidays if it weren’t for all these greeting cards being sold almost everywhere you went in the city. One of my earliest and fondest memories of being in Korea was buying a bundle of these greeting cards—featuring a traditional Korean painting of mountains and snow on the front of them—and spending a cold, gray afternoon in a coffee shop addressing these cards to send back home to family and friends.
I am not sure when the celebration of Christmas started to change and become what it is today, but it seemed to have taken off quite quickly when more and more people started getting into the spirit of the season. Maybe it was just another manifestation of the Miracle of the Han. Once people started having more disposable income, holidays such as Christmas could be celebrated more and in grander fashion.
What I do remember is riding in a taxi down Olympic Expressway near Apkujong one December night in 1991 and trying to count how many Christmas Trees I could see in the windows of the apartments. There were not too many.
A few years later, traveling down the same highway and looking up at all the apartments, it seemed almost every apartment had a tree in the window for people to see below. Obviously more people had gotten into the spirit of the season and started putting up all those Christmas trees—making sure to have them visible in windows for everyone to see.
I’ve always tried to celebrate Christmas as best as I could here over the years. I’ve put a tree for a few Christmases and adorned my walls with decorations. Sometimes it helped chase away the blues of being away from my family and friends. Sometimes it made me feel a little sad to be so far away from home.
While Christmas has become more commercialized in Korea over the years, it still does not seem as bad and frenetic as it is back in the States. Sure, it seems that holiday decorations are going up earlier and earlier here in Korea, but I haven’t witnessed much of the shopping chaos that accompanies the holiday back home. People here can still celebrate the holiday anyway they want without the pressure of adhering to any holiday traditions or getting caught up in some of the holiday craziness like shopping for those special Christmas presents.
On the other hand, some of the craziness, which undermines the spirit of the holiday, has caught on here. A few years ago, one of my students a housewife in her forties told the class how her children were pestering her to put up a Christmas tree because they wanted to make sure Santa Claus would visit their home.
There’s no question that the holiday has become more festive here and celebrated on a much larger scale now than it was when I first arrived here. It also shows how much Korea has evolved and become more globalized in terms of how holidays like Christmas are now celebrated. Despite the obvious commercial underpinnings, which accompany the holiday, I enjoy seeing all the decorations and everything lit up so beautifully even though it also makes me feel a little sad and homesick.
For myself, the true meaning and celebration of the season still shines through even though I am halfway around the world from family, loved ones and friends. While it is a time to celebrate the birth of Christ it is also a time to celebrate humankind. Commercialized or not, the holiday still remains that one time of the year when we can spread tidings of good cheer and peace and feel good about it.
This year I will be spending Christmas in Korea—my first one since 2000 before I started going back to the States after my wife had passed away in 2001—and my first one alone here since 1991. Inasmuch as I am not too keen on spending the holidays alone in Korea this year (I couldn’t find a flight back to the States in time to spend it with my family and friends) I will have to be content this year with all the memories I have of the holiday both here and back home. If anything it has made me appreciate and cherish those special holiday memories more.