Years ago I was in love with a Korean girl but was cautious. I had been dating her for a few months and had considered getting her a ring or some jewelry but I was worried this might scare her off. So prior to Christmas I had found out through various ways things that she was interested in. I found out she was really into health and holistic stuff, German calligraphy pens, staying warm and some other stuff. So I put together a Santa's bag worth of many little presents that I thought she would enjoy. Most of the stuff was practical or cute. I recall included in the bag was a pink rock salt candle thing because she said she liked the color, a scarf, a Lamy calligraphy pen set, a moleskine notebook (she said she liked writing), and a few other things.
Christmas morning she opened everything and she was noticeably disappointed. What I failed to realize is that (I am an idiot) and she was looking for some sort of romantic gift like a ring or necklace or something like that. Let me clarify, I do not have a problem with buying girls expensive gifts (my bank account and my ex's can attest). Anyway, that wasn't why we broke up. That came later and it wasn't because of Christmas.
So, here is a short primer for expats in Korea that are wondering if they should buy Korean friends or colleagues Christmas gifts or not.
Generally with friends, it is not common. Christmas cards are common gifts friends would give each other with a heartwarming message- no money is necessary. Candy canes are enough for kids or maybe a small toy (under 8,000 won) for students. Socks, scarves, and gloves are gifts that I have often received in the past. Koreans seem to be very practical in their gift giving. I have also gotten boxers and thermal underwear before as well (and they have always been my size...).
It is also common for friends to get together and just have dinner. For dessert they will have a Christmas cake. The christmas cake is not for Jesus, it's just to mark the holiday.
Foodstuff is always good. Seasonal foods like dried persimmon are considered to be very nice.
As for girlfriends, you have to at least take them to a nice dinner. Korean barbecue doesn't count. Italian or Western is usually the way to go and I recommend you get wine. Depending on how long you have been dating a present could be flowers, chocolates, earrings, bracelet, necklace, a ring or a designer purse. Shoes are generally a taboo gifts and so are knives (even if she is a chef).
Anyway, this is just from my experience. This year I will be spending Christmas with my mom Nd I will be giving her money (Korean parents all love money :)
Merry Christmas and happy shopping.