A Holiday from the Holidays: Christmas in South Korea
RESEARCH ASSOCIATE, CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY
I never asked many questions about Korean Christmas in Southern California. While our rituals seemed as random as those of Festivus, they all came together in what felt like a normal celebration. We, of course, had the usual American traditions: the decked-out Christmas tree and the same Christmas movies. Each year, we put up Christmas lights on our house if we hadn’t already left them up year-round. But aside from the Korean food I loved—the plates of chapchae, kalbi, assorted pajeon, and rice cakes—I never asked why my relatives gathered round a mat and threw a bunch of sticks on it. I never wondered aloud why it was that we kids got crisp dollar bills in red envelopes for each old person we bowed to.
Then again, who asks questions when you’re getting free money? All you needed to know is which of your aunts was the rich one.
But for my grandparents, who emigrated from a war-torn Korea, these traditions were keepsakes of home. Our Christmas celebrations were more like a mash-up with two other holidays, chuseok and seollal—holidays that dominate the cultural consciousness of Koreans, native and abroad. Chuseok is a harvest festival (or, Korean Thanksgiving), when people in Korea usually return to their hometowns to pay homage (read: epic feast) to paternal ancestors. Seollal, celebrated in January or February, is when families again return to their hometowns to pay respect to their ancestors, bow to their elders (sebae) and eat rice cake soup (tteokguk). During the celebration, families also play a traditional game called yut, where teams cast sticks as dice to move their pieces around a mat patterned like a game board. And they yell. A lot.
Still, the question, “What about Christmas?” is as valid as ever today in South Korea. Christians in South Korea (comprising 33.5% of the population in 2020) may still privately celebrate “the reason for the season” in church services, but for the rest of the country, the Most Wonderful Time of the Year is a consumer extravaganza that rivals, if not exceeds, its American counterpart (it’s also another holiday for lovers in Korea). This is, in part, due to the fact that many families are loath to gather again with relatives between the two traditionally important summons of chuseok and seollal. And for a country still girded with patriarchal gender norms, daughters-in-law would welcome the needed break from preparing for yet another family gathering. But it is also reflective of the history of Christianity in Korea—not only in its import of American Christmas commercialism, but also in the nature of how the church grew at such a formative time in the country.
In “Encountering Modernity: Christianity in East Asia and Asian America,” Albert Park writes that at the dawn of the 20th century, missionary methods in Korea dovetailed with the evangelism of capitalism. In turn, Western missionaries saw a modernizing Korea as divinely-inspired progress; by way of the Nevius Plan—a system of creating self-propagating indigenous churches—many Korean Christians were taught to believe that “capitalist economic practices were validated by biblical texts,” and eventually, “money took on new value as a sacred means to achieve positive results.” Christianity became a belief system that sanctioned the national drive for economic success.
Fast forward to the 21st century and South Korean Christianity is rife with megachurches catering to the consumeristic ideal. According to Eun Young Lee Easley, established megachurches “[comforted] people struggling with their economic inequality during Korea’s rapid industrialization process. A common theme in sermons was that the poor will become rich, although discussion of existing inequality was left out.” In a competitive neoliberal environment, South Korean churches today continue to grow through dynamic business models. Messages often cater to upwardly mobile workers and those seeking a coherent life-narrative amidst increasing economic uncertainty.
There are many reasons for the commercialization of Christmas, but it is hard to dismiss that what is sown among Christians is reaped in one of their biggest holidays. In other words, when financial prosperity is beatitude, spending becomes an act of worship. While Christmas is still celebrated for Christ by many of the 17.3 million Christians in Korea (2020), the holiday barely competes with national observances better rooted in cultural tradition and belonging. With Christianity already blurred with capitalism in the public conscience, it is no wonder that the consumerism of Christmas is met with relative indifference, especially for couples seeking a break from their obligations to family.
As an American, grief over Commercial Christmas is nothing new. After all, America invented it. Still, each year, many of us hold onto liturgies that keep it sacred, whether it is observing Advent at church or reading the Luke narrative to our children. In a covid era that challenges us to reinvent our rituals, perhaps we can create new ones, raising our ebenezer in a year that made us feel all sorts of helpless.
But as a Korean, I still miss the yut, bowing to my grandparents, and skipping turkey for more bindaetteok—memories that grow more sepia-tinged with each passing year. They remind me of the unique history to which I belong, of global narratives that each find their denouement in the redemption of Christ.
And, of course, I still miss the free money.