There are more Christians in South Korea than in many other Asian countries like China or Japan—about 25-30% of the population. South Korea is ranked second globally for its number of active Christian missionaries, and hosts the world’s largest Pentecostal church in its capital city, Seoul. Additionally, South Korea is the only East Asian country to recognize Christmas as a national public holiday, so schools, government offices, and many businesses are closed for the day.
However, despite a significant and active Christian population, much of the celebrating on Christmas in South Korea is secular. This disparity is because the commercial Christmas culture arrived and settled in Korea well before Christianity. While Christian Koreans attend mass or church services on Christmas Day, much of the nation views the day as an opportunity for romance. This is because South Korea already celebrates two family holidays—Chuseok, dubbed the “Korean Thanksgiving”, on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, and Seollal, the Korean New Year, which is usually on the second new moon after the winter solstice. Therefore, Christmas more closely resembles Valentine’s Day.
There are plenty of activities and events for couples to enjoy. Hotels like the Conrad Seoul and the Grand InterContinental offer Christmas packages including romantic cheese platters and red wine, Christmas cakes, jazz music, and fine dining experiences. Low-priced “love motels”, with check-in times starting at 10 PM, are booked months in advance.
That isn’t to say there isn’t any family feasting or gift giving on Christmas. Christmas buffets are very popular in Seoul, where you’ll find everything from roasted turkey to seafood. Many parties reserve their tables well in advance. Rather than piles of presents, gifts are typically limited to one, and monetary gifts are especially popular. And no Christmas is complete without Santa Claus, also known as Grandpa Santa, who you’ll find donning not only red robes, but blue as well.
Expect plenty of the traditional European Christmas decorations, like lights, garland, wreaths, and towering pine trees laden with tinsel and baubles, adorning the cities across the nation. One popular Christmas food mentioned earlier is the Christmas Cake, a sponge cake covered in cream typically bought from a local bakery.