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Traditional and Modern Celebrations in December

Christmas

Christmas is a major holiday in South Korea. Unlike in China and Japan, Christmas is a national holiday in Korea. This is because a high proportion (about one third) of the population is Christian. This is more than most Asian countries. There are churches in most cities and towns. The holiday is also popular among non-religious Koreans and is spent shopping or doing a fun activity.

Sparkling cities

© Christmas Decorations at Shinsegae Department Store, 2019/09/29, http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/ATR/SI_EN_3_6.jsp?cid=1978055

Christmas trees and lavish decorations sparkle throughout the cities as Christmas approaches. Koreans rarely decorate their homes but cafes and shopping districts, such as Myeondong, Gangnam and Dongdaemun, are filled with giant beautiful trees and elaborate lights. These decorations are modern and often have their own theme. The picture above features a bright star that serves as a ‘guiding light’ for shoppers to find their way in the darkness. The blazing lights create an amazing atmosphere for visitors in Korea during Christmas time.

KPOP Christmas songs

If you visit a cafe or shopping district during the holiday season you will sometimes hear western carols but it is more likely you will hear popular KPOP groups versions or their own original Christmas songs. Hearing these songs can put you in the Christmas spirit and you might get to know new KPOP groups.

As Korean Christmas is considered a special time for couples, these songs focus on love and are usually about missing someone during a special time. Some popular Korean Christmas songs are:

Korean Christmas food:

While Koreans might not be able to fit the whole family in their apartments, Christmas is still a family occasion and they often have potluck dinners. This menu is very Korean and might include Bulgogi, sweet potato noodles and kimchi. They may finish the meal with a Christmas cake, which could be a steamed rice cake covered in fruits, sponge cake with cream or ice cream cake. Or they might have a selection of other treats, such as:

Korean Santa Claus:

In Korea, they know Santa by the name Santa Kullusu or Santa Haraboji (Grandfather). And while we enjoy presents at the bottom of our tree each year at home — in Korea, he prefers to place his gifts in places of congregation, like public functions, but does not usually go to individual homes. Following in Santa’s footsteps, in Korea, it is also common to give gifts to immediate family and close friends, and often, money is given rather than gifts.

© South Korean Christmas Traditions, 2019/09/29, https://www.thinglink.com/scene/735555239528103936

How did Christmas come to Korea?

The rise of Christianity

Christianity arrived in Korea in the 17th century when a Korean diplomat returned from China with Christian books. Many academics were intrigued by the ideas of Christian egalitarianism, but Christianity did not take hold of in Korea until around two centuries later. The first church was established by Lee Seung-hoon. Protestants came to Korea around 100 years later and Christianity continued to grow. Many Christians were persecuted. Now there are many missionaries exported from South Korea to other countries, particularly to North Korea. Christmas in Korea is a mix of Western traditions and ancient Buddhist, Confuciust, and Shamanist culture. The younger generation tends to follow more western ideals and the older generation bring their cultural traditions.

© Buddhist Christmas, 2019/09/29, http://www.koreatimesus.com/buddhist-christmas/

What are other historical activities or events in December?

Winter Solstice in Korea is known as Dongji ((동지) and falls in mid-December, usually around the 22nd of December. The day that Dongji ((동지) occurs has the longest night of the year. Historically it was one of the biggest celebrations of the year. In the Royal court there was a banquet provided.

Bukchon Hanok Village is a suburb in Seoul with the most traditional Korean traditional houses (Hanok) grouped together in one spot. The cultural centre in the village holds activities for winter solstice. Visitors to the centre can make:

  • Crafts such as mini boson (Korean socks) at craft workshops
  • Eat rice cakes
  • Draw a tiger that prevents bad luck

There are activities and events in Hanok Villages across Korea.

Winter Solstice Food traditions

Each major holiday in Korea has a food that is known to be served for the occasion. Dongji (동지) is no exception and a red bean porridge called patjuk (팥죽) is served. This is a lumpy meal is filled with dumplings and boiled red beans. It can be served with salt or sugar. It used to be placed outside each of the rooms in a house to banish evil spirits from the premises. Red is considered to be a ‘yang’ colour which wards off evil therefore sometimes it was also wiped on doors and walls. In the past it was eaten before Koreans enacted ancestral ceremonies. There is a Korean saying: “Eat patjuk (팥죽)  and you eat a year”. This means that the dish causes everyone who eats it to age one year. However, if Winter Solstice is on December 10th, then Koreans did not eat patjuk (팥죽) because it was believed to be hurtful to children.

This dish is considered to be very good for a person’s health. They are considered to help red skin, fever or body aches, relieve diarrhoea, mastitis, beriberi, abscess and colic pain.

© 동지팥죽 Dongji patjuk (Korean red bean porridge for winter solstice), Korean Kitchen, 2019/09/29, https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/281475045434313280/?lp=true

A Brief History of Dongji (동지) :

The winter solstice is widely celebrated across the world in many forms, and was seen to have had deeply religious or spiritual connotations in most iterations. In Korea, it became known as the Little Lunar New Year as the sun was thought to be made anew.

It is likely that this same theme inspired the belief that Koreans considered themselves a year older after Dongji, perhaps not that they were reborn or made anew, but certainly wiser and as such, it was often said that “Without eating Dongji red bean porridge, one cannot turn a year older.”

© Winter Solstice Tradition, 2019/09/29, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/PYH20181221067700341

Featured Image Source: © Red Bean Porridge, 2019/09/29, http://www.korea.net/upload/content/editImage/patjuk_yna_L1.jpg

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Jennifer Marlton

I lived in Korea for the past two years while working as an English teacher. I have always loved writing and I enjoy exploring new cities. In Korea, my hobbies included swing dancing, KPOP dancing and singing in a Korean choir.

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