Christmas in Korea is a really low-key affair, which is how I like my holidays. As far as family holidays go (I love Halloween, but it is a very different beast than Easter or Christmas, etc.), Thanksgiving is my favorite because you don’t do much other than eat.
I find Christmas back in Virginia pretty stressful–finding gifts, so many parties and family gatherings to attend, budgeting–and annoying–flashing lights, mall traffic, Christmas carols from the day after Thanksgiving until January 1st–and I’m always relieved when it’s over. In Korea, major department stores put up lights, you could pay W6,000 for a peppermint latte at Starbucks, and my apartment building had a tree in the lobby. It actually put me into more a Christmas spirit than I ever am at home. I willingly listened to Christmas carols!
But how do Koreans celebrate Christmas? Well, for starters, I only got Christmas Eve off work. Although about half of the nation identifies as Christian, Christmas is celebrated more as a couples holiday like Valentine’s Day, with small gifts exchanged and fancy dinner reservations made. The one prevalent family tradition is Christmas cake. December 24th and 25th it seemed like every person on the subway had a cake box.
Because part of their English education is culture, my school got a visit from Santa and he handed out small presents with messages that the parents had written to their kids (Korean teachers translated them), telling them to speak up more in class or eat their vegetables at lunchtime. I was with my five year old students when Santa came and they were speechless. My normally rambunctious, loquacious class barely muttered more than an “okay” to him. It was really cute! I gave out fun shaped erasers (food, animals, stars), pencils, and candy to all my classes but my favorite moment of the day was when some of my 6 year olds commandeered my Santa hat:
This captures their personalities so perfectly. It is honestly one of my favorite photos I’ve taken since I arrived in Korea.
Christmas Eve I didn’t have to work and was relieved to sleep in a bit. That afternoon, I rode the subway to Itaewon to meet up with my friend Anthony for Thai food and book shopping in a new/used English bookstore called What the Book. I left with Stones into Schools by Greg Mortenson, which is the follow up to one of my mom’s Christmas presents to me last year (Three Cups of Tea) and The Kite Runner. I don’t know too much about the last one and in an uncharacteristic moment, bought it because I knew there had been a successful film adaptation. We went to Hongdae to poke around some shops, but because of lots of ice and wind, found ourselves buying warm drinks in a coffee shop and riding the subway back to Anthony’s apartment to watch season 2 of Community instead.
Christmas morning I awoke to Rhode Island accents because Anthony was video chatting with his family for Christmas. We headed out to Bupyong Market and shopped for most of the day, heard Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” at least a dozen times, and ate Lotteria for lunch. Nothing like sharing some fried squid rings to get you in the holiday spirit! I have tiny feet (US size 7) so I bought 2 pairs of very Korean shoes (one lined with white faux fur!), nail polishes and face masks at a Korean cosmetics chain, several pairs of earrings, and miraculously a sweater that fits me very well. My grand total for the day was W55,000 and I didn’t even have to haggle! Amazing.
Later on we met up with my co-workers and some other assorted friends for a delicious Christmas dinner. We had arranged with a local restaurant owner who we’ve befriended to have a private party with turkey, green beans, mashed potatoes, gravy, and some fantastic braised carrots. There aren’t many photos of the evening because I chose to just enjoy it–there aren’t many opportunities for creamy mashed potatoes or deep fried turkey in South Korea. There is however a photo of me looking quite pleased savoring some ooey gooey marshmallows Dane roasted for us over his heater. Seriously, if you’re ever in a situation where you can’t eat pie, roast marshmallows. And if you are eating pie, I still suggest you roast marshmallows.
The next morning I was able to Skype with some of my family and after a spicy lunch of lamb curry and naan with Anthony, spent the rest of the day lounging about my apartment. I’m really happy with how Christmas in Korea went and so lucky to have found great friends to spend the holidays with.
Next up is New Years in Beijing with Laura and Jill and I’m thrilled! Today my passport with my Chinese visa arrived in the mail, so now I just need to exchange some money, pack, and show up at the airport!