The first December I taught adults, I was startled when my icebreaker question—”What are you doing for Christmas?”—was met with downcast eyes and glum faces.
“What’s wrong?” I asked one student, Lenny.
This was the first time I really understood what a big holiday Christmas is for dating in Korea.
How to say Christmas in Korean
Where I’m from—the Southern US—Christmas is a time for family, presents, friends, Jesus, and just about everything else you find in Christmas carols (except the sleigh rides and snow).
In South Korea, Santa Claus does sometimes stop by (with usually one gift per kid in tow), and during the time I lived there (2007-2015), decorations became more prevalent both on buildings and for purchase in shops.
Koreans even mostly use the same word for Christmas: Keuriseumaseu (크리스마스), pronounced something like Christmas with the C and S sounds exaggerated, though there’s also an earlier word, Sŏngt’anjŏl (성탄절, from the Chinese characters 聖誕節, literally “holy birth day”). (Keuriseumaseu is Revised Romanization; it’s Kŭ’risŭmasŭ in McCune-Reischauer, which for once is somewhat clearer.)
If you want to say Merry Christmas in Korean, you could say, “Keuriseumaseu jal bonaeseyo” (크리스마스 잘 보내세요), but most people just say a Hangulized “Merry Christmas” (멜리 크리스마스).
Video: How to spend Christmas Alone: 1. Sleep all day; 2. Watch movies; 3. Confess your love; 4. Go to a gathering of singles; 5. Romance yourself.
Christmas in Korea: A holiday for couples
Christmas greetings might be similar, but a huge difference is who you spend the day with—almost never your family (unless you go to church together) and, if you can swing it, almost always a romantic partner. Sure, in the so-called Western world, we have mistletoe, cuddles in front of fireplaces and the occasional Christmas morning proposal—not to mention Aaron Neville’s rendition of “Such a Night”—but that’s not really the central focus.
In Seoul, many Christians, who make up about 30 percent of the population, will celebrate the religious aspects of Christmas. My mother-in-law even told us the other day how her family used to poach mountainside cedars to put up in the Jeju Island church where her father was pastor!
For most of the younger crowd, though, it’s all about romance—so much so that I know single guys who book hotel rooms hoping they’ll find someone to…cuddle with…by Christmas Eve.
by and copyright Sara McAdory-Kim. Updated December 21, 2017, to include Revised Romanization as well as McCune-Reischauer and to add links to other dating-related posts.