Saturday, December 04, 2010

Surviving Christmas in Korea

Christmas in Korea
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Seoul Magazine. Reprinted with permission
Streetwise in Seoul
By Daniel Gray

The concept of what Christmas is in Korea might seem a bit askew. The East has only seen the commercialized, exported version of Christmas because of the pervasive western media and marketing. Come on, the idea of a jolly, fat, bearded weigukin (foreigner) entering houses via chimney to drop off presents made by north pole elves might scare a nation that has had a long history of brutal invasions.

Oh, and most Korean homes don't even have chimneys- they have ondols (floor heating)-so imagining a big fat guy seeping through the floor might harken images of the horror movie the "Blob" rather than the idea of "Peace on Earth."

Even the concept of toys and luxuries as gifts seems alien when typical housewarming gifts are still toilet paper, rice, and washing detergent. Furthermore, Korea children get "gifts" as rewards for getting a high score on a final exam, not just for being "good" for an entire year.

Christmas in Korea (and many parts of Asia) is what we have made it: a reason to go out and spend frivolously- but there is also has a tinge of romance. It all makes sense: sparkling lights, hot chocolate, wrapped presents, and cold weather requiring blankets, hugs, and…mistletoe. So if you are in a relationship, be sure to make reservations at swanky hotels and restaurants early. If you don't, you might be single by 2011.

Don't worry; there are things for you to do if you are single, have a family and for kids. Here is a list of tips so you can get through the holiday season.

*Go out and enjoy the lights: Most of the shopping districts will be strewn in Christmas lights so a chilly walk might seem quite warming. Last year the city of Seoul had their Seoul Lights Festival and lit up Gwanghwamun Square. I'm sure they'll be looking to outdo what they did last year. *Go Ice Skating: Throughout the city, you'll find squares converted into outside ice skating rinks. Last year the most prominent one was at Gwanghwamun Square and at City Hall. You can also find outdoor rinks at the Grand Hyatt, Walker Hill, and at Olympic Park.

*Buy Christmas Cards and Christmas Cakes for Friends: This is a great thing about Christmas in Korea. Your Korean friends won't be expecting extravagant gifts. Cards are quite common, so are gloves, mufflers, socks, and gift certificates. You'll also see Christmas Cakes for sale at most bakeries. I recommend you get a cake and have a nice dinner with a big group of friends.

*Get involved with Expat Clubs and Associations: Groups like Seoul International Woman's Club, The American Woman's Club, Amcham, Austcham, and the embassies will be having Christmas luncheons and dinners. Most of the time they have these earlier than later (most are before December 10th) and are by invitation only. I really wish I was part of the British Association of Seoul becaue they are doing a "Mince Pie Morning."

*Eat at Christmas Balls and Dinners: Most high-end hotels and many restaurants in Itaewon will be having Christmas Eve and Day specials. Be sure to make a reservation. The *Go Shopping: The Lotte in Jamsil has a giant Toys R' Us, if you are looking for something for the kids. I also recommend going to Dongdaemun to get Christmas gifts to send home. Who doesn't love Konglish shirts, socks with faces of your favorite Korean singer, or polar bear hats with paws for mufflers? And remember, clothes are light and easy to ship overseas. Have a Merry Christmas!