Do Koreans Celebrate Christmas? 5 Strange Korean Christmas Traditions to Know About
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?
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
Jump to what you want.
- 1 Do Koreans Celebrate Christmas?
- 2 3 Korean Christmas Traditions You’d Expect
- 3 5 Unusual Korean Christmas Traditions
- 3.1 Korean Christmas Tradition #1: Valentine’s Day + Santa
- 3.2 Korean Christmas Tradition #2: Cash Money
- 3.3 Korean Christmas Tradition #3: Cake, Not Candy Canes
- 3.4 Korean Christmas Tradition #4: Public, not Private
- 3.5 Korean Christmas Tradition #5: Santa is Blue!?
- 3.6 Korean Christmas Traditions: Essential Info and FAQs
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.
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.
*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.
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.
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.
5 Unusual Korean Christmas Traditions
Here are 5 kinda weird (at least to westerners) Korean Christmas traditions to know about.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Which of these Korean Christmas traditions can you get behind? Share and comment if you liked this post!