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christmas in busan korea

Sooo, you’re spending Christmas in Korea, 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!?

do koreans celebrate christmas | busan christmas tree festival

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, the country positively sparkles 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.

christmas in korea | Seoul Christmas Festival at Cheonggyecheon Stream

All the pretty lights at Cheonggyecheon Stream, during Christmas in Korea.

If you wander the streets of Seoul or Busan, during the festive season, it sure looks like Christmas in Korea is a big deal. But is everything as it seems?

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

Korean Christmas Traditions You’d Expect

There are a few things about Christmas in Korea that would make you feel like Koreans DO celebrate the holiday just like in the Western world.

christmas in korea | miracle winter at lotte world

Lotte World pulls out all the stops for Christmas in Korea.

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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 birthday, 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 special 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.

korean christmas traditions: holiday shopping

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

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.

Unusual Korean Christmas Traditions

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

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.

WINTER STAYCATIONS AT LUXURY HOTELS |  A staycation in a luxury hotel is a popular Christmas activity for couples, and families alike. Here are a few of the most popular luxury hotels in Seoul to check for availability, but if this is something you want to do, I’d book it soon. Hotels are already 80% booked out until the end of the year.

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!)

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.

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 in Korea. 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 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.

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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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Christmas in Korea: 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:

  • Dapplegrey

    December 22, 2022

    What an interesting and enjoyable article. We went to Korea last May and enjoyed it so much we are returning next May.
    We would love to go in Winter but I think it might be too cold!

    reply...
  • 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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