From the outside, Christmas in South Korea may look like a traditional Western Christmas. Every December, the streets of Seoul and other major Korean cities are decorated with traditional Christmas decor; Santa Claus, or “Grandfather Claus” (산타 할아버지), adorns every storefront; and the sound of K-pop groups covering famous Christmas songs fills the air.
Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that South Korea has one of the largest Christian populations in Asia, with 27.6% identifying as Catholic or Protestant in 2015, which perhaps explains these Christmas similarities on a surface level.
But going beyond the surface-level decorations reveals huge differences in how Koreans view and celebrate Christmas, which come from how the holiday was initially introduced to Korea.
Following the liberation of Korea from Imperial Japanese rule at the end of World War II, American occupation forces ruled the southern half of the Korean Peninsula for three years.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces made Christmas a national federal holiday in Korea. Therefore, to date, South Korea is the only country in East Asia that recognizes Christmas as a national holiday.
However, only 2% of the Korean population was Christian when Christmas became a national holiday in 1945. Thus, Christmas was introduced to most Koreans before Christianity, turning Christmas into a secular holiday for those who are not believers.
In addition to being primarily secular, Christmas in Korea is not a family holiday; rather, it is a day for couples, closer to Valentine’s Day. This is most likely because Korea already has two other major family-oriented holidays around the same time of year: Chuseok (aka “Korean Thanksgiving”) and Lunar New Year.
For this same reason, gifts are not part of Christmas celebrations like in the West. Instead, Koreans typically exchange gifts between romantic partners. Some even use the holidays as an opportunity to meet someone, while others choose to celebrate friendship instead.
Additionally, there are no special dishes associated with Christmas dinner like in the West. Usually, dinner involves eating at a nice restaurant with your romantic partner or friends, regardless of the cuisine the restaurant serves. Although there is no specific type of food for Christmas dinner, “Christmas cake,” a simple cake with light cream, is a popular Korean holiday dessert.
Therefore, the history behind South Korea’s Christmas traditions highlights not only the deep and lasting cultural influence of the United States on Korea but also the unique influence of existing Korean cultural traditions on those introduced by the United States.
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