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Christmas in Korea

Filed in Blog, South Korea by on January 4, 2018
by Daryn F.

The biggest decision I made this year was not to come to Korea — that was easy — but not to go home for Christmas. Christmas in my family is the most festive three months of the year. My mom sets up trees well before Thanksgiving, though we do not add the decorations until after we put the Thanksgiving dishes away. We also convince her to leave many of the decorations up through January. Every single room has a tree of some shape or size. The week after finals before Christmas is normally spent making Christmas cookies and treats. We travel five to ten hours every Christmas morning to see family we only see once a year. Hands down, my favorite time of the year.

Korea celebrates differently. Many families only put up trees while their kids are young. The older you get, the more it is simply a couples’ holiday similar to Valentine’s Day. I knew this prior to committing to stay here.

As Christmas came near, I was quite thrilled to see Christmas trees pop up in several stores. Large shopping areas also hung up lights through the stores. Several of the coffee shops began playing Christmas music as well. The best part about the Christmas season in Korea is that there is no Thanksgiving to delay the festivities.

As I stated before, my mother loves Christmas. She was not going to allow me to go a year with out a few decorations. In her December package she included Christmas garland, a “Merry Christmas” sign, a mini Christmas tree, Christmas lights, a small Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus and a Christmas hat. More than enough in my small room.

This year for Christmas I requested that no one send me presents. I have limited space to bring things back to America and I did not want to leave any gifts that they send behind. I instead offered a few trips that I wished to go on (China, Hong Kong, the Olympics and Southeast Asia) that they could put money toward. My family ignored this wish. The box was mostly filled with presents from my grandmas, my aunts, each of my siblings and my parents. It was a wonderful surprise, yet also a major difficulty in moving wrapped presents out of my dorm.

Two people sitting in front of a Christmas tree with an iPad, facetiming someone.

The traditional family photo under the tree.

Early (like 9 a.m.) on Dec. 22, I woke up to a video call from my family. Since they were about to travel, they decided to celebrate my Mum’s birthday the night of the Dec. 21 (keep in mind the time difference is 15 hours). This event is only relevant because Christmas only starts the day after my Mum celebrates her birthday. The next morning was Dec. 23, my mum’s actual birthday. Around 11 a.m. I get another unexpected video call. This time my family is at my dad’s mom’s house. I was not Skyped in for all of the opening of the presents, but there was a present for me that they opened so I could see it. I also opened the present from my grandma that was sent to Korea — it was a box of rice (that had leaked all over my dorm room) with a picture of $100. My family is only a tad bit extra.

A laptop open with FaceTime pulled up. A miniature Christmas Tree sits next to it on top of gifts.

FaceTiming home with my presents underneath my little Christmas tree.

Christmas Eve was another early morning for me. I instructed my sister to call me until I woke up to be a part of my mom’s side of the family’s Christmas. I was awoken by 8:30 a.m. I was much more a part of this opening of presents. I opened the many presents sent by this side of the family as my turn came. My grandparents live out in the countryside, however, making the signal a bit difficult to keep up with the conversations. I believe my grandma got me everything from the limited item Christmas list I had sent her. I now have a pantry size bag of M&Ms and a family pack of Twizzlers. I beleive these may last for the next year. I also got money for my trips as requested. Once my presents were opened, it was too crazy on their side to continue FaceTiming.

Now Korea, as I said before, does not celebrate Christmas in the same fashion as we do in America. However, 엄마 wanted to get me a present. Since I didn’t know what I really wanted, she took Minji (her daughter) and I shopping. In the Express Bus Terminal there is a large underground market which is known for its cheaper prices. After several hours, I walked away with a new sweatshirt, panda pajama pants and little bow earrings. All of which I am currently wearing — not that that is relevant. That night we came back for a small little Christmas meal of chicken, pizza and pig feet. There was also a Christmas cake which is a tradition that Koreans have. It was more than filling.

A store front overflowing with silver and gold Christmas lights, ornaments and decor.

Christmas decorations in Korea. I was not ex[ecting to see as many as I did.

For the first time I can remember, I slept in past 4 a.m. on Christmas morning. I am the little kid that wakes everyone up to open presents way too early. However, this year I knew I was not opening presents until much later in the night. 엄마 had to work, but 아빠, Minji and I went to church for the Christmas service. It was packed so we sat in the very last row. I am not going to lie, fighting a cold and listening to a sermon in a different language made it very difficult to stay awake. After this service, Minji and I had originally planned to go see a movie on Christmas, but due to all the couples, we were not able to get any tickets. Instead, we came home so that I could take a nap before going out that night.

Around 6 p.m. we went out to Bucheon where we got Bingsoo (my absolute favorite dessert here — shaved ice with toppings). Afterwards we met up with a friend and went to a Norebang. The price was originally 18,000 won, but Minji’sfriend bargained it down to 10,000 since we were three single girls out on Christmas night. We spent a couple hours there before another friend met us. We spent an hour in the pool room before finally heading home. At 9 a.m. CST on Christmas my family FaceTimed me one last time; it was midnight here. My mum took the traditional photo of all three of us kids in front of the Christmas tree, though it was slightly different. It was almost like I was really there. Considering it was 2 a.m. by the time we finished opening presents, I was once again not able to talk with them long. I still have one present left that my Mum won’t let me open until Dec. 27. I have no idea why, other than adding more excitement.

There were times along the way that made this Christmas significantly less cheery than it has been traditionally. However, it was not nearly as depressing as I had originally expected. While I do not see myself missing out on another family Christmas, I am not unhappy with my decision to stay in Korea. My family, both here and there, have tried to make the day special. When it comes down to it, I am very thankful for the family that I have been blessed with and the time I have been able to spend with them. Can you tell I’ve been watching a few too many Hallmark Christmas movies? Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year!

About the blogger

Daryn F. is studying abroad at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea.

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