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Art&CultureHistory
The first Christmas in Seoul
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승인 2011.12.22  18:08:35
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▲ The palace's Lotus Pond, circa 1883-1884. Photo courtesy Robert Neff Collection

Christmas is a relatively new holiday in Korea but has already gained a strong following not just amongst children but adults as well. It appeals to people on so many levels. Children revel at the thought of Saint Nicholas’ visit and the promise of new toys. Adults meanwhile find pleasure in gathering together with friends and family not only to exchange gifts but also to share news and blessings of the year.

It isn’t clear when Christmas was first celebrated in Korea. The first Westerners to dwell openly in Seoul were the early diplomats and Korean Customs Department employees in 1883 but unfortunately they left no records of any holiday gatherings.

Horace N. Allen, the first American missionary to live in Seoul, provides us with one of the earliest accounts of Christmas in Korea. His first Christmas in Seoul was anything but wonderful. On Dec. 4, 1884, a group of Korean progressives tried to violently overthrow the government but were defeated after a few days of battle. The situation in Seoul was tense and most of the Westerners in the small community had fled to Chemulpo or Japan leaving Allen, his wife Fannie, their infant son, and American military officers (Ensigns George C. Foulk and John Bernadou) attached to the American Legation.

The Allens invited the two ensigns to share their rather sparse dinner – a Godsend to Foulk who had lost all of his personal belongings during the riot. The dinner with the ensigns may have made it somewhat more comforting but it was far from cheery.

In his diary Allen wrote: “Yesterday was Christmas. Fannie gave me a nice embroidered satin cap and two satin ties with a silk case to keep them in all of her own make.” He noted that he had ordered her a “nice silk dressing gown” from Yokohama but because of the destruction of the Korean post office during the coup it was probably lost. The only redeeming point of the season was the baby’s new tooth.

But within the next couple of years, Christmases in Seoul became relatively festive affairs.

In 1886, Horace Underwood, an American missionary, had the honor of hosting the Christmas party at his home. He apparently invited the entire Western community, including all of the missionaries, the Russian, British and American representatives to Korea and the members of the Korean Customs Department. He decorated the great rafters of his home “with boughs of evergreen mingled with holly and mistletoe.” Because he lacked suitable furniture, he sacrificed his bed so that it could be made into “three easy chairs and two ottoman settees.” All were covered with Chinese brocaded silk and in the cheery glow of the fire blazing in the fireplace, gave the room “a gala appearance quite worthy of Christmas.” Even the dour Foulk seemed to enjoy the party despite his hard feelings towards the missionaries and described it as “very pleasant.”

But in another letter home, Foulk cryptically wrote that he spent Christmas day “in the country in a purely Korean way.” He evidently went tiger hunting and thoroughly exhausted himself but did not succeed in bagging one of the elusive creatures.

Hunting played a large role in these early Christmas dinners – especially prior to the mid-1890s. Western foods and supplies were not readily available in Korea and had to be ordered from Japan, China, and the United States. Hams and turkeys were scarce so many people hunted ducks, geese and pheasants to provide meat for their tables.

Presents were often made. Toys were carved from wood for the children while the adults either gave handmade clothing or store-bought goods ordered several months in advance. It wasn’t until the 1890s that stores in Chemulpo and Seoul began offering small selections of toys, chocolates, clothes, and even live turkeys.

Christmas wasn’t only celebrated by the Westerners. By the mid-1890s, Korean Christians began holding small gatherings at their churches – churches that they had decorated with trees and candles. Sometimes Korean children were invited to Christmas parties at the Seoul Union – such as in 1895 when Eugenie Waeber (the Russian representative’s wife) decorated an enormous tree with German ornaments and surrounded the base of the tree with presents. According to one eyewitness:

“There were some little Korean children present, one of them said, ‘If I can only have just on thing that grows on that tree I shall be happy.’ He got not only one, but many. I think that every child and every mother went away satisfied and happy.”

Even the royal palace had a Christmas tree – albeit, a little late. Lillias Underwood, Horace’s wife, wrote: “Soon after Christmas I dressed a Christmas tree for the royal family, but to my great vexation, the effect was quite spoiled because their majesties were too impatient to wait till dark to view it, and one cannot lock the doors on kings and queens and forbid them to do as they will in their own palaces. There were no heavy hangings or means of darkening the room, and so the poor little candles flickered in a sickly way in the glaring daylight, and I felt that Western customs were lightly esteemed in the critical eyes of the East.”

The Christmas season also meant sledding and ice skating. In 1886, Foulk borrowed a pair of ice skates (possibly from one of the missionaries) and went out to one of the frozen ponds and began to skate. Within 10 minutes hundreds of Koreans had converged on the spot to watch the foreigner with strange things on his feet. Although the ice was relatively rough, Foulk was able to make a few flourishes that elicited excited oaths and exclamations of wonder. According to Foulk:

“I passed the skates around the crowd and it gave me the greatest pleasure to see how interested they all were to examine them. I explained how a common skate could be made and I think the crowd will all have skates before many days.”

When Foulk went ice skating the next day, he was surprised to see that the Koreans had used axes and carpenter’s planes to smooth out the ice. Almost 2,000 people had gathered and Foulk’s exploits became the talk of the town. Even the royal family became enthralled with the beauty of ice skating and invited the missionaries to the palace to skate on one of the many ponds so that the king and queen could watch from afar.
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