From the outside, Christmas in South Korea might appear similar to a traditional Western-style Christmas. Every December, the streets of Seoul and other major Korean cities are decorated with traditional Christmas decor, Santa Claus, or “Grandfather Santa,” (산타 할아버지) adorns every storefront, and the sound of K-pop groups covering famous Christmas songs fills the air. Thus, it might not be surprising that South Korea has one of the largest Christian populations in Asia, with 27.6% identifying as either Catholic or Protestant as of 2015, perhaps explaining these surface-level holiday similarities. But going beyond surface-level decorations reveals huge differences in how Koreans view and celebrate Christmas, which comes from how the holiday was originally introduced to Korea.
After Korea was liberated from Japanese imperial rule at the end of World War II, the US occupying forces governed the southern half of the Korean peninsula for three years. During that time, the US forces made Christmas a national federal holiday in Korea. Consequently, to this day South Korea is the only East Asian country that recognizes Christmas as a national holiday. However, only 2% of the Korean population was Christian when Christmas was made a national holiday in 1945. Thus, Christmas was introduced to most Koreans before Christianity was, turning Christmas into a secular holiday for those who are not devout.
In addition to being mostly secular, Christmas in Korea is not a family-focused holiday—instead, it is a day for couples, more akin to Valentine’s Day. This is most likely because Korea already has two other big family-focused holidays around the same time of year: Chuseok (AKA “Korean Thanksgiving”), and Lunar New Year. For that same reason, gift-giving is not a huge part of the holiday like in the West. Instead, Koreans usually exchange gifts between romantic partners, which explains why the most in-demand items on Christmas are condoms, sexy lingerie, and love motel reservations. Some even use the holiday as a matchmaking event, while others protest the pressure to date during the holiday, instead choosing to celebrate friendship. Additionally, there are not any 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 what cuisine the restaurant serves. Although there is not a specific type of food for Christmas dinner, the “Christmas cake,” a simple sponge cake with light cream, is a popular Korean holiday dessert.
Hence, the story 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.
Kimery Lynch is a Projects Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington. She recently graduated from the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa with her MA in Asian Studies.