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An expat's Korean ChristmasFree of the shackles of tradition, a Korean Christmas reverts to the simpler things that make for an enjoyable holiday
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승인 2013.12.23  16:18:04
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▲ Families take their time to appreciate the Christmas display at The Hilton Hotel, Seoul. Photo by Douglas MacDonald

What is the true meaning of Christmas? The holiday was long ago rid of its religious trappings in the UK and has almost returned to its heathen roots of drinking, feasting and debauchery. (Apologies, heathens.) That is apart from the modern deity, universally adored: Consumption.

While pews remain empty, the streets throng as shoppers - armed with Primark-reinforced elbows - jostle for position across the nation. Think a huddle of irate ajjuma making a beeline to the very last “1+1” of Emart mandu and then multiply that by the 12 days of Christmas. It’s truly frightening.

As consumption reaches fever pitch, the newspapers explode in a Manichean battle between darkness and light as “the moral majority” revel in bouts of proverbial self-flagellation to make Ashura look like a spa and facial. The Epicureans ignore them and perennially win out.

“It’s Christmas” is an oft-heard refrain, seemingly excusing all manner of misdemeanors, from taking an extra swig of brandy from your nan, to ram-raiding the local Bargain Booze. With such high levels of joviality (read drunkeness) it is no surprise that families can’t wait for the ordeal to end, cooped up for two, three, or four days eating turkey, turkey sandwiches, turkey soup, and then going cold turkey. It’s an intense, gut-bursting holiday.

Einstein defined insanity as: ”Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” In which case Christmas is the very epitome: “The same food, the same jokes, the same fights, the same passive-aggressive asides,” suggests Guardian journo Issy Sampson.

In Korea, it is a very different story. With none of the blood feuds that characterize a British Christmas (or perhaps a Korean Chuseok), the holiday could almost come and go, barely noticed but for the ‘25’ marked in red on the calendar. To be clear, there is plenty of consumption, but none of the “Christmas Shopping Starts Now” madness of home. The only capitalist battle I'm interested in is between the odeng tent and the hotteok stand at the end of the road.

Many expats are probably more than happy with this - and it’s expected for a traditionally non-Christian country - but it does give this time of year a strange air, as if something is not quite right. Or perhaps it is just very right. Free of many of the trappings of tradition, the festival reverts to the mean: food and drink.

Family are of course sorely missed, but there are surrogates available: food and drink. This isn’t cynicism, but celebration. “It is just a day off, like a Sunday,” says a Korean friend. An open Athiest states it is the perfect time to prepare a gift for friends and recuperate, while a devout Christian concedes that the day is ideal for youngsters and lovers to enjoy a few stress-free hours.

In a country where 60-hour weeks are the norm, this is exactly what a national holiday should be. No in-laws, no day-long food preparation, just an evening out with your mate and some mates, enjoying a few seasonal beverages.

Rather than a nation reaching collective psychosis in the weeks leading up to a consumption-driven, morality-laden celebration of faux selflessness, it is refreshing to be able to just fire up the grill, throw on a few racks of samgyeopsal and crack open a Hallasan, knowing that tomorrow is a long day in bed.

As another Korean friend said, “Christmas is all about seeing friends and forgetting about work. That’s why it is the best holiday of the year!”

Merry Christmas!

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