Holiday thoughts: A local's take on Christmas in Korea

Photo by ChiHon Kim
Photo by ChiHon Kim

Holiday thoughts: A local's take on Christmas in Korea

by ChiHon Kim
Stripes Korea

Korea has been a Buddhist nation for thousands of years. But, in the past several decades, Christianity has grown in the country, and now more than 20 percent of the population are Christians.

You might not have known this, but in Asia, only Korea and the Philippines have designated Christmas as a national holiday. Although a majority of the Philippine population is Catholic, Korea does not have an official religion. Around the world, it’s hard to find a non-Christian country where Christmas is a national holiday. So, the situation in Korea is a little unique.

After World War II, only five percent of the population was Christian in Korea. But in 1945, the U.S. ruling government in South Korea declared Christmas a national holiday. In 1949, South Korea’s first president, who was a Christian, again designated Christmas as a Korean national holiday.

The way Koreans spend Christmas is a bit different from Americans, though. Since Most Koreans live in apartments, few people decorate the outside of their homes or have a Christmas tree inside. However, churches, shopping malls, and streets are lit up during the season. 
Unlike Seollal or Chuseok, Christmas is not a big traditional holiday, so most Koreans don’t go back to their hometown to celebrate. But, it is a day off and children are excited for Santa to bring them a present.

Santa and me
Christmas comes every year, and every person has their own feelings and beliefs about it. For children, it’s the belief that Santa will surprise them with a present. I don’t remember a lot from my childhood, but I clearly remember the moment I stopped believing in Santa Claus.

As a child, I was more curious about the existence of Santa Claus than getting a gift. I made plans to surprise Santa when he entered our home. I wanted to see the person who traveled across the Pacific Ocean to deliver me a present.

I think the reason I questioned the existence of Santa was quite rational. The Santa I saw on TV was a person who climbed down the chimney and left gifts in stockings children set out on the fireplace. But searching for a house with a fireplace in South Korea is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Most Koreans live in apartments without a fireplace. So, for this systematic and structural reason, I had my suspicions about Santa Claus. I mean, how did he get in and out of the homes he visited?

On Christmas Eve morning when I was about 7 years old, I carefully hung one of my father’s big socks on the doorknob of my bedroom door instead of the fireplace, which, of course, we didn’t have. Everything was perfect, and I was so curious about how Santa would break through my home’s security system and bring presents to me.

By the time the evening ended, I felt someone creep into my room. Yes! Santa was there! He sneaked up on me, put something next to me, and then carefully turned to the door.  Santa Claus must not have seen the odd sock I had prepared because of the dim lighting.

I looked at the silhouette of Santa going out of the door through a half -closed eyes. Surprisingly, it was a very familiar silhouette. It was not Santa, but my father! I was surprised, but happy because my father hardly ever reveals his feelings to our family. All my plans to surprise Santa went down the drain. It was me who was surprised. I closed my eyes until he got out of my room completely because I didn’t want to ruin his plan and I was happy to see the sweet side of my father.

There is a stereotype that men living in Gyeongsang-do, the southeastern region of South Korea, are macho and don’t express their emotions. It’s true to some extent. My dad is like that.

The gift my father left at my bedside that night was Lotte ABC Chocolate. I can still buy the same chocolate when I go to the supermarket, but I can’t see my father’s big silhouette like I did that night so long ago. Whenever I see my father, who is getting thin and weak, I know that it is my turn to be Santa.

Though my view of Santa was shattered after that, I had a new one of my father. It’s a memory I’ll never forget.

Speaking of Santa

* Is that you, Santa?: Dangsini santa-ingayo?
* I believe in Santa.: Jeo-neun santaga it-dago mideoyo.
* I’ve been good this year.: Joh-eun hanhaereul bonaesseoyo.
* I love Christmas.: Jeo-neun Christmas-ga jeongmal johayo. 
* What do you want for Christmas?: Christmas seonmul-lo mwo batgo sipeo? 
* Merry Christmas!: Jeulgeo-un seongtan-jeol bonaeseyo.

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