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A history of Christmas in Korea

How did this holiday get here and how'd it become what it is? All you questions answered. By Joe Yachimec

Christmas today isn’t always what it’s been. Here are three spirits of Christmases long past on the Peninsula.

The Ghost of Christmas Really-Really Past

Things get blurry as we look back into the past. However, given the importance of Christmas to Christians of all stripes, it seems likely that the definitively first Korean Christmas ceremony of any kind was probably celebrated by underground Catholics during the Joseon Dynasty. On the whole, the Joseon kings weren’t too keen on any philosophy that wasn’t Confucianism. They were fairly diligent about creating martyrs, though. Because of this persecution, early Christmases—if they happened at all—would have been pretty subdued affairs. No eggnog, certainly.

The Ghost of Christmas Very Past

According to Robert Neff, a writer and historical researcher who has studied late-19th-century Korea extensively, one of the first Christmases with recognizable trappings (evergreen sprigs, crackling fire, doilies...) happened in 1886, at the home of an American missionary named Horace Underwood. Early American missionaries in Korea were often supporters of the temperance movement—the anti-alcohol social wave that eventually lead to Prohibition in the U.S.—and so the parties they were throwing in the 1880s and 1890s were, no offense, nothing like anything you’ll experience this year. If you’re craving something that’s more post-Prohibition then, head for the Russian Legation; they’ll treat you right. Unless it’s before 1890—in that case the Legation hasn’t been built yet and you’ll be singing wholesome carols with the Underwoods.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Along with widespread destruction, the division of their country and Spam, the Korean War gave Koreans their first taste of a “modern American-style” Christmas. At the bases, music was played either live or on the radio (maybe it was Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” which is now playing in your head as you read this), Christmas trees were delivered by the Navy to at least one group of marines and maybe a frozen turkey or two was flown from Japan. There were also toys for kids (usually orphans), and cigarettes and liquor. 

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As for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to come, stay safe this December. Happy Holidays!

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