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christmas in busan korea

Sooo, you’ve found yourself in Korea for Christmas, and naturally, you’ve got questions. Do Koreans celebrate Christmas? Are there any Korean Christmas traditions to follow? Where the heck can I get my Santa on!?

If you wander the streets of any major city in Korea during the festive season, it sure looks like Koreans celebrate Christmas. But is everything as it seems?

do koreans celebrate christmas in busan korea

It sure looks like Christmas is celebrated in Korea by ⓒ Kim Jiho, Korea Tourism Organization.

In this guide, you’ll learn:

  • do Koreans celebrate Christmas?
  • how Christmas in Korea is the same as in the west
  • 5 unexpected and 3 expected Korean Christmas traditions

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Do Koreans Celebrate Christmas?

During Christmas in Korea, you’ll find a country positively sparkling with holiday cheer. Huge light displays decorate malls and streets, over-the-top Christmas trees can be seen pretty much every which way you look, and shops are full of holiday wares.

do koreans celebrate Christmas? Seoul Christmas Festival at Cheonggyecheon

All the pretty lights at Cheonggyecheon, during Christmas in Seoul.

In short, Korean DO celebrate Christmas. Annnnnd they don’t. Here’s why.

3 Korean Christmas Traditions You’d Expect

There are a few things about Christmas here that would make you feel like Korean do celebrate Christmas just like in the West.

Christmas Day is a National Holiday

In Korea, Christmas Day is a national holiday, just like in Canada or the United States. I bet you’d be surprised to learn that Korea is the ONLY East Asian country where this is the case.

This is mostly because there are more Christians in Korea, than in most East Asian countries. Around 30% of the people in Korea identify as Christian. Christmas in Korea (성탄절 | Sung Tan Jul) is celebrated religiously as Christ’s Bday much more than the commercial aspects of Christmas that we’re used to in the West.

garden of morning calm winter lighting festival

Korea is the only East Asian country that has Christmas Day off.

*In 2021, Christmas Day and Buddha’s Birthday were removed from the list of alternative holidays. That means that should either of these dates fall on the weekend, the day off won’t be moved to a weekday.

Church Services

That makes it easy to find special church services that celebrate the religious aspect of this holiday, if that’s what you’re after. There are Christmas services to be found all over Korea during Christmas, but the Midnight Mass at Myeongdong Cathedral is one of the most attended.

meygondong cathedral during christmas in seoul korea

You can attend midnight mass at Myeongdong Cathedral by ⓒ Lee Beomsu, Korea Tourism Organization

Christmas Commercialism

One thing you can’t seem to escape whether a country celebrates Christmas or not – is the rampant commercialization of the holiday. Even though exchanging gifts is not a common Korean Christmas tradition, you’d never know it from the amount of Christmas displays, festivals, markets, and shopping opportunities available during Christmas in Korea.

korean christmas traditions: holiday shopping

There’s plenty of shopping to be done around Christmas in Korea.

5 Unusual Korean Christmas Traditions

Here are 5 kinda weird (at least to westerners) Korean Christmas traditions to know about.

christmas in seoul

메리 크리스마스!

Korean Christmas Tradition #1: Valentine’s Day + Santa

Christmas in Korea is a romantically geared holiday. That means that Korean Christmas traditions revolve around activities couples can do together, rather than family activities. It’s so much a “couple holiday,” that you wouldn’t be wrong to call it Valentine’s Day + Santa.

It’s common for couples to plan and reserve a special Christmas dinner or buffet, have a Christmas staycation, or go ice skating. The ice rink at the Grand Hyatt in Seoul is a real favourite because of its ultra romantic vibe.

TIP  |  A staycation in a luxury hotel is a popular Christmas activity for couples (perhaps more so this year due to COVID restrictions). Here are a few of the top luxury hotels in Seoul to check for availability. Many rooms are already sold out, so book as soon as you can.

Korean Christmas Tradition #2: Cash Money

You won’t usually find a Christmas tree with a stack of brightly wrapped presents inside Korean homes. Most homes don’t have a tree at all, and it’s definitely not among Korean Christmas traditions to exchange piles of gifts.

do koreans celebrate christmas: christmas in seoul

A Christmas tree with a stack of presents is not that common in a Korean home.

Couples may give each other sentimental presents for Christmas, but an envelope of cash is much more likely to exchange hands between family members. Children might be the one exception these days – as they seem to get more and more presents for Christmas with each passing year. (Bring on the money is what I say!)

Korean Christmas Tradition #3: Cake, Not Candy Canes

While a brightly lit Christmas tree in individual homes is unlikely, it’s totally a Korean Christmas tradition for friends or families to share a Christmas themed cake. And I’m not talking about fruit cake. A Korean Christmas cake is more likely to be super light, with cream filling.

korean christmas traditions: christmas cake

You’re more likely to see a Christmas cake than a Christmas tree in a Korean home by Sungmin Yun (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Christmas cakes can be picked up all over the country. For better value, visit one of the bakery chains, like Paris Baguette or Tous Les Jours. If you want something really special, check out the food emporiums at Lotte, Hyundai or Shinsegae Department stores.

Korean Christmas Tradition #4: Public, not Private

I gotta say that lighting festivals, holiday decor, and Christmas events in Korea are pretty spectacular. Public places like department stores and malls pretty much become Christmas-themed spectacles every December. But that’s about as far it goes.

illuminated arched tunnel at the garden of morning calm lighting festival

Huge lighting festivals in winter are among the most gorgeous of Korean Christmas traditions.

Most Koreans live in apartments, so it’s not a tradition during Korean Christmas to decorate their home. You won’t even find a Christmas wreath hanging on a door. Every year, it seems like a few more people get a Christmas tree and hang up stockings, but I’d say these families are still few and far between in Korea.

TIP  |  The Garden of Morning Calm Lighting Festival is the biggest, most famous lighting festival during Christmas in Korea. It’s totally worth seeing! Book an all-inclusive tour, including round-trip transport to the Garden of Morning Calm, Nami Island and more here.

Korean Christmas Tradition #5: Santa is Blue!?

When I first moved to Korea, it was virtually impossible to find Santa Claus in a mall. But as the years go by, and the holiday becomes more commercialized, more and more Santas are appearing around Seoul.

christmas blue santa

In Korea, Grandfather Santa (산타 할아버지) can be dressed in either blue or red.

In Korea, Santa is called 산타 할아버지 (Santa haroboji) or 산타 클로스 (basically Santa Claus with Koreanized phonics). He’s usually depicted wearing the usual red and white like in the West, but it’s also a Korean Christmas tradition to see him dressed in blue or green and wearing a gat (Korean traditional hat worn by men).

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Korean Christmas Traditions: Essential Info and FAQs

1
Do Koreans celebrate Christmas? In short, yes.
2
Is Christmas in Korea a national holiday? December 25th is a national holiday. However in 2021, it was announced that Christmas would be excluded from the list of alternative holidays.
3
Where can I see the best Christmas lights? Check major department stores like Lotte, Hyundai and Shinsegae, public areas like Seoul Plaza and the Cheonggyecheon, or visit a lighting festival.
4
How do I say Merry Christmas in Korean? There are about 10 different ways to say Merry Christmas in Korean, but the safest, easiest way that won't offend anyone is: 크리스마스 잘 보내세요 | Keu-ris-eu-ma-seu Jal Bon-ae-se-yo.

Which of these Korean Christmas traditions can you get behind? Share and comment if you liked this post!

Comments:

  • Stefanie

    December 11, 2021

    Great article Shelley! I loved reading about the Christmas traditions in Korea.

    reply...
  • December 9, 2021

    That was a fun read, Shelley! It makes sense to me that Korea embraces all the lights and festivity, but it was enlightening to see how they view our western rituals. I was actually surprised that 30% of the population is Christian! Have a great holiday season and happy new year!

    reply...
  • December 9, 2021

    interesting. it was quieter in Japan when I lived there. The one thing that the surprised me in Japan was everyone going to KFC!

    reply...

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