K-Pop group Crayon Pop
For the past week, I’ve been beginning my classes with a warm up activity I divide the students into two teams and have them race to come up with an A-Z list of Christmas words. Though I hadn’t planned it as such, this turned out to be quite a good way of harvesting insights into Korean Christmas. Here are a few of the more interesting one.
Korean has a larger proportion of regular churchgoers than any Western country except perhaps the US. So of course the holiday has religious significance for them. Yet it traditionally has not been an important part of the Korean calendar. Hence its celebration here can feel a bit like how Eid or Diwali are commemorated back in the UK. That’s not a perfect analogy as a growing number of non-Christian Koreans have come to celebrate it as well. However, many don’t and there’s a definite sense that this festival belongs to a particular community.
To illustrate this point consider that while Christmas is a public holiday here, it is otherwise disconnected from the school holidays. Hence because Christmas this year is on a Sunday we get a grand total of zero days off. They are pretty dissatisfied about this and so am I.
This word came up more or less every time. By contrast, words like ‘mistletoe’ only came up if I had taught them it. The folk traditions that surround Christmas in the West largely don’t exist in Korea. Hence it tends to be seen in religious terms or in the pop culture/consumerist lense. So you don’t hear carols (in English at least) but you do hear stuff like ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’.
This is Konglish for ‘single’. This is supposedly a Christmas word because for non-Christian Koreans, Christmas essentially functions as a second Valentine’s Day. Boyfriends and girlfriends buy each other chocolates and flowers, and go away for the weekend. Another suggestion for a word was ‘motel’ and these are apparently booked out during Christmas. Indeed the association with coupledom is so strong that when I ask my students if they have plans, they will answer ‘no, solo’.
He must be pretty close to being a cultural universal
Ice Cream cake
Western Christmas traditions can occasionally feel like they’ve arrived in Korea via a game of Chinese Whispers. Hence the tradition in commonwealth countries of having fruitcake has apparently morphed into having ice cream cake and for the past couple of days it’s been hard to go anywhere without seeing people carrying ice boxes from Baskin Robbins.
As far as Korean teenagers are concerned Home Alone is the definitive Christmas movie. They will write the name of Macaulay Culkin’s character and then be surprised that I want an explanation for why it is a Christmas word because this should apparently be evident.
So this has been a somewhat strange experience for me. I have seen Christmas celebrated but not really in the form I’m used to. It also denuded of much of the buzz that makes it Christmas for me. That’s taken some adjusting and put me in the unusual position of being a cheerleader for Christmas cheer. It has also underlined for me the extent to which Christmas in the West isn’t primarily a religious holiday. You can have lots of Christians – as Koreas does – and still have other points be the focus for the year.