Korean Christmas – not two words you'd normally put together? Well, perhaps you should. Spending Christmas in South Korea might not be in your festive plans, but we argue that it should be on every traveller's bucket list. Why? Temperatures take a nose-dive, transforming much of the country into a winter wonderland, and there are festivals and events going on up and down the country. Consider this – while all your friends and family are battling the tourist crowds in the typical German-style winter market, you could be heading off to the coolest Christmas hotspot in Asia.
Christianity has a long history in South Korea. The first Catholic missionaries arrived in the early 17th century. The religion was outlawed in 1758, and practising Christians were persecuted for decades. The number of Christians in South Korea was relatively small until the end of the Second World War, when the country was freed from Japanese occupation. In the years since, the number of practising Christians has grown hugely (around 33% of the country identifies as Christian), and traditions like Christmas have become widely popular across the country.
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You will notice a lot of similarities with Western traditions, many of which have been imported but given a Korean twist. South Korea is the only Asian country to have officially declared Christmas as a national holiday, but it is by no means purely a religious holiday. Although religion does of course play a part, in South Korea, Christmas is a holiday enjoyed by everyone. For those who like their winter celebrations full of ice, sparkly lights, and snow-capped trees, South Korea won’t disappoint. Read on to find out what you can expect from Christmas in South Korea.
Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Babbo Natale, Weihnachtsmann – the seasonal gift-giver goes by many names, and in South Korea it’s no different. Here, he's known as Santa Haraboji (which translates to ‘Grandpa Santa’) and he will be seen in a green or blue suit as often as he’s seen in red. He also generally wears a traditional Korean gat (a wide-brimmed top hat) instead of the red number you might be used to seeing him in. He’s still recognisable as Father Christmas though.
Of course, one big difference between celebrating at home and spending Christmas in South Korea is the food. In Europe you might expect a fruit cake to be served on Christmas Day, but in South Korea, you will probably be tucking into a delicious sponge cake with cream, an ice-cream cake, or a steamed rice cake with fruit. The dinner will be traditional Korean fare, such as noodles, beef bulgogi, and kimchi.
Christmas in Korea is all about love…of the romantic kind – in fact it is seen far more as a romantic holiday than a family one. Think Valentine’s Day with ice-skating and baubles. For some, Christmas is a chance to get together with friends and have a house party. A Korean Christmas doesn’t have the pressure to spend the day with your distant cousins or annoying aunty. They have other traditional holidays for that, so many people use it as a chance to have fun with friends or a partner instead.
Although gift-giving is an established part of a traditional Korean Christmas, it’s much less of a focus than it might be at home. Giving money is much more common in Korea than in European countries, and gifts only tend to be given to select close family and friends.
The Alps are old hat. If you’re into skiing, South Korea needs to be your new winter sports hotspot. With mountains covering nearly three quarters of the country and copious amounts of snow in winter, South Korea is an ideal ski destination. There are a host of high-quality resorts to choose from, including the Yongpyong Ski Resort, Konjiam Resort near Seoul, and Alpensia Ski Resort, which was a central venue for the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
No romantic version of Christmas is complete without getting your skates on and hitting the ice. Ice skating is a very popular winter pastime in South Korea so you are spoilt for choice when it comes to outdoor rinks. The most well-known is the Seoul Plaza, but there are plenty of others around the country. No matter where you happen to be, you’re likely to find an ice rink near you.
One event not to be missed is the light festival at Herb Island in the city of Pocheon in northern Korea. The spectacular light displays are sure to wow even the most cynical visitor, and are designed with romance in mind. You’ll be treated to a pink wish tunnel, sparkling hearts and an illuminated up Santa Village. There are lights as far as the eye can see and no part of the grounds is left untouched. The result is so fantastical that you’ll wonder if you’ve walked right into a fairytale. As well as the visual spectacle, you can also get down to some wonderfully Christmassy activities, including making Christmas soap, drinking mulled wine and taking photos in the Christmas photo zone.
This festival in Busan celebrating the humble pine tree has become an essential annual winter event and is the perfect place to go if you’re looking for somewhere to soak up that Christmas spirit. The star of the show is the 18-metre high Christmas tree, but there are also amazing concerts and performances to enjoy.
If you’ve never been trout fishing at Christmas, you’ve been missing out! Christmas in South Korea would not be complete without taking part in this most unusual of traditions. The Pyeongchang Trout Festival is a popular winter tradition in South Korea and something you shouldn’t miss if you are there. The waters around the city have the ideal conditions for trout farming, and over the years an entire festival has built up. Visitors can go ice fishing for trout, and then take it straight to a nearby restaurant be be prepared for dinner. As well (maybe) catching some trout, visitors can also take part in a host of other winter activities such as sledding, snow rafting, and riding on the sleigh trains. Wrap up warm and enjoy.
One of the biggest winter festivals in the world, the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival takes place in January every year. So it’s more of a post-Christmas activity, but a perfect way to avoid getting the January blues. Fishing is also a big thing here – there are opportunities to go ice fishing, lure fishing, and even bare-handed fishing! And if you’ve been lucky enough to catch a fish or two, there are plenty of other things you can do, such as watch some street performers, visit the winter village, check out the beautifully lit Elgomi Castle, or go sledding and bobsleighing.