Well, it’s been a remarkable Christmas season here at The Miracle on the Han. I’ve welcomed a nephew into the world (albeit from the other side of the globe) and experienced Christmastime in a foreign country. A Yuletide I won’t soon forget, to be sure.
If Christmas in the United States is the most wonderful time of the year, then Christmas in Korea is a better-than-average Saturday night. Simply put, Christmas is not the holiday here that it is in United States. There are Christmas decorations, but they don’t line every street and store. There are Christmas carols, but they appear modestly. There are Christmas movies on TV, but no marathons of “A Christmas Story” playing all day. In fact, Korea’s Christmas traditions are very westernized. They do a lot of the same things Americans do. Though, they also omit many western traditions (see: giving gifts).
That being said, there are a few Christmas traditions that seem to be uniquely Korean. The most prominent of these traditions is eating Christmas Cake.
Taking a que from western birthday parties, Koreans eat cake on Christmas. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I had many questions surrounding the holiday. One of the questions I asked to many Koreans was, “What do you eat on Christmas?” There are no traditional Christmas dinners in Korea apparently, but almost every Korean I asked said Christmas Cake is a staple of a Korean Christmas. I soon believed them when, the week before Christmas, all the bakeries and coffee shops starting piling stacks of cakes for sale outside their doors.
Yeah, those are all cakes. It was hard to find a bakery in the week leading up to the 25th that didn’t have a Korean in a Santa hat hawking cakes with a microphone like some cheery auctioneer.
Of course, I wasn’t about to let the chance to experience this tradition pass me by, so I bought my own Christmas Cake
It came with a free bottle of sparkling apple juice, and the creamy frosting inside this chocolate gingerbread man made it worth the purchase. Yet, this wouldn’t be the only Christmas Cake I was to experience in Korea…
On Christmas Eve, I gave the teachers in my school a little bag of candy each and gave the principal and vice principal some chocolates. Well, in Korea, if someone gives you a gift, they believe it should be reciprocated. So the principal sent his secretary out to get me a Christmas Cake. Number 2…
Now, you’re probably thinking, “Well, that looks mighty fine!” And it does. It looks delicious. Now guess what flavor it is. Lemon, maybe? Something with “chiffon” in the name? You’d be wrong.
That is a sweet potato cake. That yellow stuff below the frosting is sweet potato. And I did NOT realize this until after I bit into it. Now, I like yams as much as the next man, but in a cake? Really?
Moving on, the next question I asked quite often was, “Who do you spend Christmas with in Korea?” The answer surprised me. Koreans do not spend Christmas with family, they spend it with their boyfriend or girlfriend or friends. It’s basically like Valentines Day in December. For this reason, almost all restaurants and stores are opened on Christmas, as many couples go out to dinner.
The last Korean Christmas tradition I want to mention is not really a tradition, but rather an American import that is strangely popular here. Home Alone. That’s right. The 90’s movies starring Macaulay Culkin. This was one movie I saw on TV several times during the past week, and its popularity was confirmed when several Koreans told me they plan to watch it on Christmas because they, “always do.”
Why Home Alone? Why no family? Why Christmas cake? I have no idea. I guess it’s no stranger than piling gifts wrapped in paper under a (sometimes fake) evergreen tree. It’s just tradition, and that’s why they do it.
So grab a piece of leftover cake, turn on Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and have a Merry Christmas.