From spending the holidays with your friends instead of your family to giving just one special gift on the 25th December and enjoying the yummiest Korean food for dinner, Christmas in Korea is at once quite different and familiar to what you might be used to in the west. Read on to find out more about Christmas traditions and how the locals celebrate festive season in Korea.
Quality time with your favourite person
Christmas in Korea has a lot less emphasis on family than it does in the west. Instead, Koreans who aren’t in a relationship will likely celebrate with their friends. Or, if they are in a relationship, they will go on romantic dates together. In this way, Christmas in Korea is more like Valentine’s Day because of the focus on love and bonding. A Korean holiday that is more family-oriented, as we expect Christmas to be, is Seollal (Korean New Year).
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Christmas greetings: A new experience
To recognise and celebrate the birth of Jesus, Korean Christians say “sungtan chukhahaeyo”. It’s not quite the “Merry Christmas” equivalent, as it has a strictly religious meaning. A more secular equivalent is “seongtanjeol jal bonaeyo”. Translated, this greeting literally means “have a good Christmas”.
Have fun in the winter sun
On Christmas Day, many Koreans will enjoy outdoor fun in the crisp winter air. One very popular activity, especially in cities, is ice skating. There are dozens of ice rinks dotted around cities like Seoul. One of the most popular is the Seoul Plaza Ice Skating Rink near City Hall. The Plaza is conveniently located near multiple of the city’s key attractions including Deoksugung Palace. Aside from its convenient location, this ice rink is great for everyone because it has a beginner’s rink and an experienced skater’s rink.
If you’re wondering how Christmas is celebrated in Korea outside of its metropolitan hubs, the answer is sledding! Korea is a mountainous country with many ski resorts. Sledding is a very popular activity at these resorts on Christmas Day, especially for groups with young children. It’s a favourite activity because, unlike skiing and snowboarding, sledding delivers an adrenaline rush without the need for skill and athleticism. However, for people who enjoy high-octane snowsports, Korea has excellent ski runs. These runs are ideal for people who prefer to carve up the slopes instead of a turkey at Christmas.
Christmas in Korea involves many public displays and festivities. Lotte World Adventure, Seoul’s most popular theme park, is one of the best. Lotte World throws a themed Christmas lights show each year, complete with rides, performances, and photo-ops with characters. The event takes place from late November until the end of December.
The Seoul Christmas Festival is another great festive event. It takes place on the calm waters of the Cheonggyecheon Stream. Visitors can casually walk along the event from Cheonggye Plaza to Jangtonggyo Bridge, absorbing all the spectacular lights displays. The event also includes a giant Christmas tree and bustling Santa village, which is enjoyable for both kids and adults.
Journey beyond the festive delights of Korea with Trafalgar on our Asian tours.
Endless Christmas shopping
While gift-giving occurs at Christmas in Korea, it is not as popular of a tradition as it is in the West. In most cases, each person only receives one gift from their family or significant other. As is traditional in Korean culture, these gifts must be given with both hands. This practice is done out of politeness and respect. For the same reason, one must never open a wrapped present in the presence of the giver. The most common Christmas gift is money, but other popular gifts are brand-name items and liquor.
Gift-giving might not be a popular Korean Christmas tradition, but Christmas shopping and Christmas sales are still a big part of the festive season. This aspect of Christmas time is very similar to what we experience in the West, with sales and deals at every turn. Christmas shopping is particularly delightful in Korea because many shopping malls and department stores go all-out with decor. Many places put up lights and ornaments alongside large Christmas trees. The lights at Myeongdong Shopping Street in Seoul are especially dazzling. Between shopping ’til you drop at all the apartment stores and filling your tummy on local fare, be sure to snap a picture to remember this spectacular sight.
Santa Claus: Broaden your horizons
On the surface, Santa Claus is a Korean Christmas tradition that overlaps with Western Christmas customs. In Korean department stores and markets, Santa is much like what we’re used to: jolly, dressed in a red suit, bringing Christmas cheer to young children. However, Santa has another representation in Korea. He is often depicted wearing blue or green robes in a traditional style from the Joseun Dynasty. He is commonly referred to as “Santa Kullusu” or “Santa Haraboji”. However, he is still understood to be a kind grandpa-like figure who hands out presents and represents the magic of Christmas. Neither of these two versions of Santa are very present in Korea at Christmas, but they are slowly gaining popularity.
Christmas music: The best you’ve ever heard
In Korea, Western Christmas carols and music are eclipsed by the music of K-pop groups. We are used to hearing songs about Santa, snowmen, Christmas trees and the baby Jesus. Korean Christmas music is very different. Here Christmas songs tend to be about love. They are generally meant to remind loved ones how much they are appreciated and missed at this special time of year. Popular titles we recommend listening to are “Snow Candy” by Starship Planet and “Miracles in December” by Exo. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to catch one of these groups performing their Christmas songs live in concert!
Irresistible Christmas food
Food is a Korean Christmas tradition that will have you begging for more. If spent with family or a group of friends, food is usually organised potluck-style with everyone bringing their best dish. Many restaurants, cafes and market stalls also serve similar food. Typical dishes include BBQ beef (bulgogi), kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage) and sweet potato noodles. However, the most essential part of Christmas lunch or dinner in Korea is actually dessert. Most families typically serve a steamed rice cake studded with fruit. Throughout the festive season, other sweet treats are also popular. These include sugar candy, steamed pear (baesuk), persimmon-wrapped walnuts and red bean cakes. If you’re hoping for eggnog and turkey, you’ll have to look somewhere else!
Will you be adding Korea to your bucket list? Let us know in the comments below! Or, if you’re still looking for festive inspiration, head to our website to discover more about the best destinations to visit this Christmas!