Christmas in Korea

by Robert J. Starszak

The Korean peninsula is located in northeast Asia. It is bordered by China to the north, the Yellow Sea to the west, the Sea of Japan to the east, and the East China Sea to the south. Since the end of the Second World War, Korea has been divided into two countries: the communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north and the democratic Republic of Korea in the south. Given that religious activity is severely restricted in North Korea, Christmas observances on the peninsula take place in earnest in South Korea.

Lay Catholic missionaries introduced Christianity to Korea in the late 18th century, with Protestants following some 100 years later. Although Christians today comprise only around 25% of its population, South Korea recognizes Christmas as a public holiday. Korean non-Christians who otherwise go about their daily routine on December 25 may engage in some holiday customs such as gift-giving, sending Christmas cards, and setting up decorated trees in their homes; children, especially, appear to have embraced Santa Claus, whom they call Santa Grandfather. Local radio stations might play some holiday music on Christmas Day and a few days before, while television stations are known to air Christmas films and cartoon specials popular in the United States. In addition, increasing numbers of stores and buildings are displaying Christmas decorations, and the commercialistic trappings of the season are making some inroads, but not with the same intensity noticed in Western countries. All in all, there is definitely a strong American influence behind the Korean celebration of Christmas.

As in the West, Christian churches in Korea hold Christmas pageants and conduct special services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Young people especially enjoy the fellowship these observances provide; after the Christmas Eve services, for example, they go caroling to the homes of older church members, where they are usually treated to hot drinks and snacks.

The Christmas carols are the same as those in the United States, only that they are sung in Korean. Local dishes such as ddeok guk (rice-cake soup), bulgogi (barbecued beef), naeng myeon (clear noodles made from sweet potatoes or green mung beans), and the ever-popular gimchi (spicy pickled Chinese cabbage) may be served for Christmas dinner along with fruit and assorted sweets.

The Christmas greeting in Korea is Sung Dan Juk Ha.

Song: Silent Night

© 2003 by W. C. Egan

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