For many westerners, no matter their background or religion, the festive winter season is an important one where friends and family unite in a time of celebration. Ex-pats working as school teachers will get a lengthy holiday, and some use this time to visit the folks back home or take a winter trip (Japan, China and Thailand are all popular destinations). Those working in hagwons or elsewhere will get less time off. This guide is for anyone who has taken advantage of the wonderful opportunity to spend Christmas in Korea.
You’ll need to accept that winter is going to be a little bit different this time around. The differences between Korea and “home” will only be heightened at this time of year, particularly if it’s your first Christmas in another country. Things will be missing, and will inevitably be missed (the biggest one for me was seeing family and friends, although The Coca Cola advert, availability of advent calendars, sending and receiving cards and a trip to Oxford Street were up there too!)
Christmas is celebrated in Korea, but mainly through a western influence. Children believe in Santa Haraboji (Santa Grandfather), but there’s nowhere near as much emphasis on this character as there is in the west, and it’s common for a child not to receive any presents for Christmas. Christmas Day is certainly not the biggest, most important or most celebrated of the year. Although a national holiday, lots of shops will remain open, and normal, everyday life will continue for many people. The sooner you can be accepting of this, the sooner you can crack on with making this the best festive season yet.
Embrace the big freeze
Like it or not, a Korean winter will be a cold one (the coldest I’ve ever had). Depending on what you’re used to, this can either add to or damage the festive spirit. As a Brit, Christmas just doesn’t feel like Christmas without Jack Frost’s bite in the air, and the romance of a white Christmas made my Korean winter nothing less than magical. However for friends from Australia, for example, there could be nothing worse than a cold winter. In their view it damages socialising, impedes on health and induces misery. But as I said, If you’re spending Christmas in Korea, that’s what you’re gonna get, so there’s only one thing to do… embrace it.
Pop on a movie or some music that will muster some cheer in the cold (Frank Sinatra’s White Christmas or Home Alone should have the desired effect). If your mood still doesn’t lift, you’ll need to address it in a more head-on way… get out there! Korea’s winter sports scene is easy to access, well-managed and much cheaper than elsewhere in terms of tickets, equipment hire and transport. There also are a number of ice festivals across the country, including the Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival. And if you don’t feel like travelling, some old-fashioned sledging, snowballing or snowman-making can be just as fun. Whatever you do, hit the snow and make the most of Korea’s wonderful winter weather.
Keep up Traditions
Many of my friends have quirky traditions that add a nostalgia and distinctiveness to the season. There’s no reason to abandon every one of these if you don’t have to. You’ll still be able to watch favourite movies, go to church, eat a big meal, drink to your heart’s content and exchange gifts in Korea. Sure, this Christmas will be different, but these little touches will allow that personal touch to be retained.
Create new Traditions
It’s probable that you won’t be able to have a knees-up with your old school friends, visit your grandparents or catch a Crimbo movie at the cinema, though. Instead of dwelling on this, focus on what you CAN do in Korea that you can’t at home.
Why not head to a norebang on Christmas Eve and belt out some Christmas (or better still, some K-pop) hits? Or visit a posh restaurant- whether Korean, fusion or western, this will be an inexpensive way to celebrate and feel special. Is there a river, lake or mountain or interesting landmark near where you live? If so, take an interesting walk on Christmas day. If possible, try some Korean food or drink for the first time. See if there are any special events happening in your city. It’s traditional for large bell is traditionally tolled on 31st December- why not make this your new way of seeing in a new year? Pretty soon, it will be these new traditions that you’ll find hard to break.
The key to keeping the seasonal spirit alive is getting in touch with everyone back home. Social media, e-mails and e-cards are all fab, but if you were hoping to post gifts or cards, be sure to do so well in advance, and to observe the “last posting” date to ensure these are received on time.
Speaking of cards, I was unable to find packs of Christmas cards on sale in department stores or stationery stores (however if you’re living in Seoul, you probably won’t face this problem). If this is the case, don’t despair. Making cards or sending photos can be even more personal and appreciated. If that sounds like too much effort, websites like Hallmark and Moonpig offer international card mailing services.
And if you wanted to send gifts, opting for something Korean will delight those at home, and give them an insight into your new way of life. Some cute stationery, traditional paper (hanji), placemats, tablecloths or chopsticks all make for beautiful gifts.
To get into the spirit of things, and for an instant “cosy” feel, give your apartment the festive make-over it deserves. See if your local department store stocks any Christmas decorations, and then look closer at the shops in your city. Stationery and party stores often stock cute and tacky deccies, and I was able to buy a fully (and beautifully) decorated artificial tree for less than £10. Making snowflakes and paper chains are fun, cheap and simple activities. If you’re a teacher, you can use these as end-of-term activities in the classroom as well.
You won’t fail to feel festive if surrounded by friends. No matter if it’s freezing outside and you have a rotten cold and/or the winter blues, get yourself out there, you won’t regret it. Every Korean town has a number of cafes, bars and restaurants perfect for socialising. Congregate co-workers, fellow ex-pats and new-found maties, have a good old natter, and spread Season’s Greetings (OR get everyone to come to you: hold your own Christmas party in your apartment.)
Eat, drink and be merry- Korean style!
Your festive grocery list may include some or all of the following: turkey, ham, steak, potatoes, cakes, puddings, pies, cheese, wine, port, eggnog… Although the chances of obtaining all or most of these are very slim, it’s worth checking out local bakeries and department stores as a first port of call.
It’s best to be creative and think outside the box, though: you’ll find plentiful alternatives that may just make this Christmas the most memorable and unique yet. Consider a chicken rather than a turkey (we managed to cook a whole small chicken in the mini-oven that came with our apartment.) Improvise with which vegetables are served as trimmings: although different to what you’re used to, Korean veggies are fresh and delicious. Consider swapping the usual fruit cake for a yummy iced sponge cake from Paris Baguette. Or go all out- have beef bulgogi or dak galbi, rice and kimchi for Christmas dinner, just like your Korean friends will.
There’s no two ways about it, spending winter in Korea is festively magical, charming and special. What’s more, the festive season here doesn’t end on December 31st as it does in other countries- Seollal (Lunar New Year) falls in mid-to-late January of the western calendar. Furthermore, fitting in with the popularity of the “cute” style, you’ll often find that Christmas decorations in Korea stay up all year round.
So to everyone in and outside of Korea: Season’s Greetings, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! ^.^