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How Do People Celebrate Christmas in Korea?

by Emily
Christmas holiday decorations in Seoul, South Korea over the Cheonggyecheon stream. Photo by SeongPhil Jang

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In the United States of America, and many other countries, people go all-out in celebrating the winter holiday season. Some people decorate their house from top to bottom in Christmas lights while others cook a giant meal for friends and family. 

In our family, we always start by decorating the house with greenery such as garland. Then, we put on some Christmas music and decorate the Christmas tree with ornaments collected over the years. Finally, we host an annual Christmas eve brunch with our closest family and friends. There, we serve delicious treats like sausage balls (or the vegetarian version) and the bourbon slush cocktail. Needless to say, the holiday season is a joyful marathon filled with laughter, family, and friends. 

When I moved to South Korea to learn about my husband’s culture, I learned that they celebrate Christmas differently than what I was used to growing up in the deep south of the United States. Obviously, every culture celebrates holidays in different ways. While I experienced culture shock at first, I soon embraced celebrating the holiday season in a new way. 

Billions of people worldwide come together to observe one of the most widely celebrated holidays in the world, Christmas. Here, we will explain the ways people in South Korea celebrate this holiday! 

How Many People Observe Christmas in South Korea?

According to research developed by the Pew Research Center in 2010, about 46% of the population in South Korea have no religious affiliation. Then, 23% are Buddhist while 29% are Christians. 

In 2015, the national census found that 56.1% of the population do not have a religion while Protestantism represents 19.7%, Korean Buddhism represents 15.5%, and Catholicism represents 7.9%. Another small number makes up other religions. 

This is different from North Korea where only a marginal number of Christians exist. 

A winter photo of a pavilion that sits in the center of Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, Korea. The pavilion sits in the middle of a pond covered in snow.
Photo Credit: 이룬 봉
Winter in South Korea Is Beautiful! This Pavilion Sits In Gyeongbokgung Palace.

Is Christmas A National Holiday in South Korea?

Unlike in many other East Asian countries, a large portion of the South Korean population observed Christmas because they are either Protestant or Catholic. As a result, like the United States, Christmas is a federal holiday in South Korea. This means that most employees get the day off to spend with friends and family. 

However, Christmas is not one of the large holidays in South Korea such as Chuseok or Lunar New Year. People typically only get Christmas day off rather than a few days to gather as a family. 

The History Of Christianity in South Korea:

Christianity was first introduced to Korea during the late 1700s through Catholicism. At the time, the Korean Joseon royalty found the Christian religion to have subversive influence. This resulted in the persecution of those who follow the religion resulting in the Catholic Persecution of 1866 in which approximately 8,000 Catholics (including missionaries) were killed.  

In the late 19th century, the Korean peninsula opened to the outside world. This brought religious tolerance for the remaining Catholics. Also around this time, beginning in 1884, American missionaries began to bring Protestantism to South Korea. That year, the first Protestant missionary, named Horace Newton Allen, came to Korea and the first Protestant church in Korea, established by Seo Sang-Ryun, also opened its doors to worship. 

Both denominations had gradually grown since their introduction. In 1945, approximately 2% of the total population of the Korean peninsula was Christian. Though that was the case, rapid growth only began after WWII, when the people of Korea were freed from Japanese Imperialist occupation.

Then, after the Korean war, Christianity continued to grow in South Korea while it became marginalized in North Korea. 

How Do People Celebrate Christmas In Korea?

Because Christianity and the celebration of Christmas are relatively new concepts, South Korea is not steeped in holiday tradition for this Christian Holiday. As a result, interestingly, Christmas is not considered a family holiday in South Korea. Instead, it is considered a dating holiday! Couples plan out their Christmas Eve dates extensively in South Korea much like we do Valentine’s Day. 

Then, on Christmas day, those who are religious and Christian go to church to celebrate Christ’s birth. 

Personal Note: As a foreigner, I gathered with many other ex-pats on Christmas Day to eat at an all-you-can-eat buffet. While different, it was fun to hear how everyone celebrated the holiday in their home countries and how they plan to spend the rest of the holiday in South Korea!

Christmas Decorations in South Korea:

For the most part, people in South Korea live in apartments in major cities. As a result of apartment living and culture, people do not decorate their houses for Christmas.

Instead, look for holiday decorations in major shopping districts and department stores in areas such as Myeondong, Gangman, and Dongdaemun. In those districts, you will come across giant Christmas trees, strung lights, and decked-out department store display windows. 

I also recommend walking along the Cheonggyecheon stream at night during the latter part of December. The city decorates the steam with floating festive ornaments and light shows. To view these decorations online, I recommend checking out the Seoul Walker Youtube Channel to see examples of Holiday light shows. For example, check out a walk along Cheonggyecheon stream or see the decorations at the Shinsegae Department Store.

Holiday decorations in an alley in Seoul, South Korea. Bushes are lit with lights, strings of lights are overhead, and a giant Mickey Mouse blow up doll in hanging overhead.
Photo Credit: Bundo Kim
Holiday Decorations In An Alley In Seoul.

How Do You Say Merry Christmas in Korean? 

Below, we list different ways to wish someone a Merry Christmas in Korean! 

크리스마스 잘 보내세요 

Keuriseumaseu Jal Bonaeseyo

This is a standard formal way of wishing someone a Merry Christmas. Literally, this translates as ‘Have a good Christmas.’

메리 크리스마스 

Meri Keuriseumaseu

This is a casual way of wishing someone a Merry Christmas. The words are literally ‘Merry Christmas’ in English using Korean pronunciation. 

Things To Do In Korea During the Christmas Season:

While people do not celebrate Christmas the same in South Korea as they would in other countries, they do many winter activities people often associate with the holiday. Below, we list some ideas of things for you to enjoy if you travel to South Korea during the winter!

  • Ice Skating: South Korea gets COLD during the winter. You can find many indoor and outdoor skating rinks across the country to enjoy the winter holiday bliss. 
  • Skiing and Snowboarding: Like ice-skating, there are plenty of locations to go skiing and snowboarding in South Korea. Yongpyong Resort hosted several events at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018. 
  • Amusement Parks: To see holiday shows and celebrations, head to an amusement park! Lotte World has Christmas themed events!
  • Local Winter Festivals: While not ‘Christmas-themed,’ South Korea has plenty of small local festivals in different cities and towns. Look for these festivals to enjoy winter sports such as sleighing, ice fishing, and more!

I Hope You Enjoyed Learning About Christmas In Korea!

In the end, I hope you enjoyed learning about Christmas in Korea. If you ever get the chance, I hope you can visit South Korea during the winter!

If you would like to read more about cooking, you can find further recipes on this blog. I listed some of my favorite Carving A Journey recipes below! For reference, many recipes are influenced by my family’s blended Korean and Southern heritage.

Further Carving A Journey Recipes:

If you have any questions or comments, you can also email me at [email protected]. And, finally, I would love to hear from you through our social media as well! You can follow me at @carvingajourney on InstagramFacebook, and Pinterest. I also started a vlog YouTube channel with my husband! Or, if you would like more articles like these, you can subscribe to the blog by joining the mailing list. I hope you enjoyed learning about Christmas in Korea! Thank you so much for stopping by!

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