Saturday, November 23, 2013

Christmas in Korea: Or Why I Haven't Celebrated Christmas Since 2006

It was 2006 when I last celebrated Christmas. This occurred me a few nights ago. Even though I knew it had been a while, I didn't realize that it had been this long. And yes, I suppose that we can all celebrate the "true meaning" of Christmas (the birth of Saturn Santa Jesus) in our own private way, but come on, that's not what I mean. I'm talking about the pomp, pageantry, gifts, TV marathons, and so forth.

No, I haven't been on some figurative hunger strike against the commercialization of Christmas. It's just that I've been in Korea for every Christmas starting from 2007 when my family moved back to the motherland, and Christmas just isn't that big of a deal there. A few municipal decorations here and there, a few special menus at restaurants... Most businesses don't even take the day off, and the day seems to just be an opportunity for couples to go on dates. Almost everybody lives in apartments, so even if people were inclined to put up gaudy Christmas lights, they wouldn't be able to. I once went to Seorae Maeul during the holiday seasons because it has French roots, so I thought there'd be a little more Christmas influence there. But there was nothing.

Anyone else hate those eerie blue LED lights?

I remember the first Christmas I ever spent in Korea. I forget how old I was, but I was fairly young. I was still at an age when I believed in Santa Claus, so I was wondering how the hell he was going to find me halfway across the world. Damn, I knew I should've left a forwarding address in my stocking. But Korean addresses are so complicated and long. Also, there weren't any chimneys in apartments! This was a huge problem.

Santa did show up, however. Only he walked in through the front door, after presumably having taken the elevator. We were all awake too. Santa also spoke Korean, which was jarring to me because we all think of Santa as some old fat White dude who speaks only English. He gave us our presents, which for me consisted of a tan coat and some kind of pencil set (which I didn't care too much for).

Now that I think about it, I have to wonder who that Santa was. Was it one of our uncles? It couldn't have been my dad because he was there with us. I'm pretty sure it's not normal for all Korean families to be visited by roaming Santa Clauses like that.

At first, it was hard to adjust to my Christmas-deprivation, but I've gotten used to it now. It's also made me see just how American the holiday is, at least the holiday as I knew it. All my favourite Christmas songs like "The Christmas Song" or "Silver Bells" were written by modern American songwriters like Mel Torme and Jay Livington, respectively. The image of Santa Claus as a jolly grandpa was popularized (though not created) by Coca Cola, which operated on the duh hypothesis that a happy Santa was more marketable than, say, a stern Santa or a gaunt Santa or a creepy elf Santa. My go-to Christmas soundtrack is "A Charlie Brown Christmas," which was written by Vince Guaraldi in that most American of musical genres, jazz. Dr. Seuss? American too.

Christmas defined in my imagination

So from that perspective, it'd be very strange, even disconcerting, to see Christmas-as-I-knew-it celebrated in Korea. I'd love to have the opportunity to see how different countries celebrate Christmas, as I'm sure it'd be very different everywhere. How does Brazil do it? The Philippines? Poland? France? Kenya? Algeria? What about countries that don't celebrate it at all?

Christmas mainly exists in my memories now. I always like to reminiscence about my favourite Christmas present that I ever got, which was this Lego set:

Pharaoh's Forbidden Ruins!!! I still have this as I couldn't bear to sell it
at our garage sale many years back

Ah, times were simple back then, when everything I wanted in life could be bought at a Toys R Us. Now, I don't even know what I want anymore, at least in terms of material things. Embarrassing story: once, I was at a Thanksgiving dinner at a friend's house, and when the conversation turned to gifts, I said something like, "What I want can't be bought in a store." The table went dead as everybody thought I was talking about sex or something. Took me a few seconds to realize that and correct everyone's misunderstanding. Awkward.

Ever since I got my own bank account, the thrill of receiving gifts has been lessened somewhat. Lacking any sort of purchasing power really made Christmas a make-or-break time to satisfy all your materialistic needs. But now, I can just lazily go on Amazon and be my own Santa Claus (though all I ever seem to buy are textbooks).

I'll probably get a chance to celebrate Christmas again sometime soon. But for now, it doesn't bother me that much anymore.

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