In search of Christmas, far away

We’re used to celebrating the holidays away. Christmas Eve in Belgium one year, in Finland the next. Meeting extended family the years geography and vacation days allow. Follow-up Christmas in mid-January when everybody’s finally around. Travelling 22 hours on Christmas Day by car, train, bus and a couple of planes to get to the middle of nowhere, Ostrobothnia.

However, we’ve always been at someone’s home with family or friends. This year was our first solo Christmas, abroad for both of us, based in an Airbnb flat shared with a friendly Korean-Taiwanese-South African family and a group of girls from Shanghai who we only saw for his and byes.

For us two, Christmas means family, while in Korea it’s more of a “couple’s day.” Love motels are booked solid and you need a dinner reservation if you want to eat, one of our Seoul hosts said. Knowing it would be a very different year, we went out in search of Korean Christmas.

First stop was the Confucian shrine Yongmyo, which houses “spirit tablets” of kings and queens of the Joseon dynasty that used to rule the country. I know, what does this have to do with anything? – but we were in the neighbourhood. Next up, the Christmas market in Hongdae, one of Seoul’s student neighbourhoods. The market was very, very quiet so we walked around in the area and found ourselves a good café for planning train travel in China. We knew of another Christmas market on the island of Yeouido so we gave that one a try in the evening. Much busier, full of people selling and shopping for handicraft, two young men singing and playing guitar and long queues for hotdogs, rice cake and steak. No glühwein or glögg, though. We wrapped it all up back in Hongdae with a very tasty pizza once we found a free table tucked away in a corner of a random restaurant.

To continue the line of new experiences, we visited the Yoido Full Gospel Church on Christmas Day. Attending mass is not on our usual holiday repertoire, but with about 30% of Korea’s population being Christian – quite high in this part of the world – this seemed fitting. The service, held in Korean in a large, round, modern hall with wooden benches and next to no decoration, was a lot livelier than the Lutheran and Catholic services we’ve attended in the past. A charismatic speaker held a fiery sermon, the choir and congregation sang accompanied by a string band, and you could see how much this meant to a lot of the people sitting close to us, completely absorbed by the events.

So, our Christmas in Korea: Nothing like what we’re used to, not particularly Christmassy, but a nice couple of days all the same.

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